Downward Facing Puppy

“Let’s do YOGA!” my sons yell, launching themselves into a series of unique, impromptu asanas with names like “Flying Bagel” and “Pizza Cowboy.” I love the plucky, unabashed joy with which they inhabit their bodies.

I’ve observed time and again how children naturally incorporate the elements of asana practice into their lives. When my sons were learning to walk, each of them spent a lot of time in a pose I came to call “Downward Facing Puppy.” We’ve all seen babies strengthening their upper backs by laying on their tummies and pushing up into their own playful version of Cobra (Bhujangasana). Even newborns have a Yoga practice: as they move in and out of Cobbler’s Pose (Baddha Konasana) – oh, those enviably open hips! – they are naturally exploring the limits of their new, unbounded physical life.

Children seem to intuitively bring the practices of pranayama and kriya into their lives as well: After a heated battle with his brother, my younger son Sam often walks around the house, his tongue curled into a tight burrito, drinking in the cooling breath of shitali; and when one of my kids encounters some especially frustrating challenge (usually involving the finer points of railroad construction) I’ll hear him doing a short round of kapalabahti breath, puffing rhythmically in a perfect imitation of The Little Engine That Could.

I suppose what I admire most about my children’s intuitive use or Yoga is that, whereas my own practice is often fraught with struggle, self-judgement, and angst, my sons are still models of the concept of self-love.

Children don’t load their minds with directions. They don’t agonize about the “rightness” of a pose. They don’t force or bully their bodies. They don’t get grim-faced and somber in order to steel themselves for something they’d rather not do.

They just pretend to be a tree. Trees sway. In fact, swaying – and sometimes even falling over — is the fun part of what trees do! Children go upside down and backwards because the world looks great and goofy that way. They invent new poses, and they find new and different approaches to old ones – “Try THIS bird! Try THIS triangle!” – just because, I suspect. Just because they are curious about what bodies can do.

“Let’s do YOGA!” they shout gleefully, and off they go.

The other morning, my older son Noah waylaid me as I headed out the door and solemnly handed me his Mr. Potato Head. “This is for you, Mom,” he said. “You need to take him to class with you.” That particular day, Michelle chose to begin class by talking about teachers; she suggested that even as we chant “Guru Brahma, Guru Devo, Guru Saakshaat, Guru Shanti,” our definition of “teacher” can be more expansive: a “guru” can be any person, any experience — anything we allow ourselves to learn from.

I put Mr. Potato Head at the end of my sticky mat. From the beginning, his presence kept me smiling; but even more important, he gradually began reminding me of all the grownup mental habits that I carry into my practice.

For example, when Michelle asked us to imagine being upheld by clouds when we were in Parvrtta Ardha Chandrasana, I started to wonder why I didn’t really allow the word “cloud” to take up space in my imagination, but instead pushed it to the end of the line in my thoughts with a non-stop interior monologue that went something like this: “Find a point of focus. Spiral the chest. Extend into the back heel. Open the hip. Steady the gaze. Float on a cloud. Float. Float. FLOAT!!!”

We use images like “clouds” and concepts like “buoyancy” in describing asanas all the time, but having Mr. Potato Head in view made me realize that I don’t really bring a child’s awareness to those words. I don’t endow them with silliness or joy. What, I wondered, would a kid do with the idea of buoyancy? To a child, “buoyancy” wouldn’t be some abstract concept; it would have size, color, and an exciting setting: Kites at the beach! Hot air balloon races! Macy’s Day Parade Floats!

And so on that day, instead of approaching headstand with my usual sense of heaviness and dread, I imagined myself back on the grass of a front lawn in Nebraska on a hot summer day. Mr. Potato Head – with his lime green baseball cap and upraised, on-backwards arms — cheered me on. My legs went up, and we regarded our upside-down faces happily for a pretty darned long time.

It’s true that we come to our Yoga practice with a sense of reverence, respect, and care; but when I watch my sons – who are the gurus within my heart in so many ways — I am reminded of how important it is that we not allow our sense of reverence to usurp our sense of curiosity and joy.

Guru Brahma. Guru Devo. Guru Shanti.
Guru Potato Head.

NOTE: This essay first appeared in Flame, a publication of Samadhi Yoga Studio in Seatle.