YOGA and BABIES: Healthy Spines and Healthy Minds for Us All!
Earliest experiences hardwire a baby’s developing brain
Movement has the power to RELAX, STIMULATE, RE-ORIENT, PERCEIVE, MEMORIZE, & INTEGRATE the entire BEING
Babies are born with spines in a “c” curve. They have been furled into fetal position, not unlike a fiddlehead fern in the spring. Like the fiddlehead unfurls with time and growth turning into a lovely full, upright, and open fern leaf, the human baby, with time, and an innate blueprint of movement patterns that involve pushing, pulling, and reaching, will develop the necessary cervical, thoracic, and lumbar curves of the spine that are the internal architecture allowing humans to be the only bipedal vertical mammal on this planet. The centerline and midline of the body also form as the infant spine develops along with the vestibular and proprioceptive senses that involve balance and a sense of where our body is in space. The nervous system, which is very immature at birth, operating tens times slower than the adult nervous system, learns to regulate, and the brain grows 85% of its full capacity in the first year after birth! There is no doubt about it; babies are very busy as they develop into vertical human beings! They work hard to learn to lift up their heads, which are a great deal bigger than their bottoms! They follow their senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to explore their strong curiosity about their new world outside of the womb. They learn to find movement that follows the reach of their senses so that they can touch, feel, taste, smell, see, hear, and grasp. Babies have distinct cries to let us know their needs; hunger, burping, gas, sleep, and the need to be moved and settled. They try desperately to communicate with the adults who care for them. They are sentient beings who have been learning a great deal in the womb and have preferences and imprints already formed before they are born. They have learned a great deal from their fetal womb life from their mothers, and also from their other parent.
Babies’ developmental movement patterns take them through a natural sequence that, when encouraged and supported, enables them to find their way to an aligned seated “mountain” pose using their sit bones like their “first feet” to push down into the ground defying gravity while elongating their spine and rising upwards. This an equal and opposite force, or “yoga,” union of actions! When we see babies sitting this way, they look fully present and focused, open, and calm…like little Buddha’s! This is so much like what adults who practice meditation and yoga, are trying to attain themselves! Babies’ movement patterns to arrive independently in aligned vertical sitting, or standing, are all foundational yoga poses! Perhaps the original yogis practiced by observing babies! Let’s consider the general order of developmental movement patterns that develop the spinal curves, muscle strength, feed the curiosity of the senses, and help establish the foot bones. All of them together encompass backbends, forward bends, side stretches, chest openers, twists, balance, alignment, breathing, integration, and rest!
- Belly Breathing…starfish pose…pranayama
- Head lift prone on the belly…baby cobra/sphinx, chest opener (cervical and thoracic spine
- Tail lift prone on the belly…knees, chest, and chin, (back bend in the lumbar and thoracic region)
Simultaneous head and tail lift prone on the belly… locust or airplane (engages all of the spine, the chest, the shoulders, arms, and belly)
- Tail lift from the lying on the back… beginning plow and with hands holding the feet it becomes happy baby (forward bend)
- Side lying….modified side plank (strong work in the muscles of the core)
- Lifting arms….side stretch
- Opening arms….chest opener
- Pushing backwards on the belly to find the feet on the ground and articulate the feet (mobility and grounding of the feet to begin to learn how to align the feet, ankle, legs, hips, and all of the corresponding joints which is foundational for aligned posture)
- Creeping on the belly/aka: “commando crawl” (Push, Pull, Reach integration to move forward and get what one wants. Feet, hands, and eyes work together for propulsion)
- Pushing onto hands and feet….plank, dolphin, or down dog (balance & foot strengthening)
- Raising to arms and knees…all fours…child’s pose (balancing on 4 points requires having found the midline and centerline of the spine at this point)
- Sitting…easy pose/ seated mountain (aligning with Heaven & Earth)
- Sitting on knees…virasana/hero pose
- Standing…mountain pose (foot balance, spine integrity, joining the rest of the Humans)
- Standing on one foot….tree pose (balance)
It is a true wonder that all of these actions are contained within an inherent movement “blueprint!” Babies need floor time and playful encouragement and support to move through these patterns. It is beneficial for the adult caregivers and older siblings to get down on the floor with babies and engage in these actions too! Health spines for all! But what are some ways we adults can use yoga to help the babies who are adjusting to enormous changes from the self contained womb world where their needs were met automatically to their new world post birth that involves learning to breath, suckle, digest, eliminate, deal with gravity, settle the nervous system and regulate, have the senses more deeply engaged, and so much more? Here is the yoga we can offer to the babies for helping their nervous systems, for soothing, settling, and experiencing joy which helps release more oxytocin, the growth and love hormone!
- Pace: slow ourselves down to be able to mirror the baby’s nervous system. Attune and focus on the present moment.
- Align: find our Center and sense of being Grounded (our own connection to Heaven & Earth) so that when the baby is in distress we can be the calm “eye of the storm” and be responsive instead of reactionary
- Pranayama: breathe deeply holding the baby so that the baby can entrain and mirror our breathing helping it to settle if distressed
- Hum a low “mmm” sound or chant “OM” while holding the baby chest to chest (heart to heart) or with a hand on the baby’s heart to help it settle
- Exercise/Play with a baby to help it move energy and gain nervous system regulation. Massage, gentle bouncing, stretching the baby into some gentle yoga poses, sing, etc. (It is important to consider what the baby might have imprinted in the womb world when exercising. If the mother walked, ran, danced, or did a lot of yoga then the baby imprinted that level of physicality in the womb and will find movement that embodies similar elements more settling and familiar)
- Reflect/Mirror. Just as a yoga teacher checks in with the students about their needs and challenges, your baby appreciates it when you reflect to them what you observe. This is a form of witnessing and observing that is deeply gratifying for the baby. If the baby is having teething pain and uncomfortable for example, having a caregiver reflect this back instead of trying to cajole the baby into being distracted is more authentic and develops trust and attachment between baby and caregiver. Of course offering something for the discomfort is also a good idea!
- Listen! Learn the five baby cries so that you can easily discern your baby’s needs. Dunstan Baby Language is a wonderful resource for this and is available on a dvd, a phone app called Baby Ears, and in a You Tube video on the Oprah Winfrey show at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2n2SLvjQas
- ReSource Yourself. Caring for a new baby is full of wonders and also challenges. Sleep deprivation is common as well as feelings of overwhelm. Becoming a parent is a stepping through one of life’s biggest portals! We are so used to “DOING” and not as practiced at “BEING,” and yet we are called “HUMAN BEINGS!” Make time to BE with your baby and partner/spouse that nourishes all of you. Find ways to feel good and look for wondrous moments in every day like small meditations, or moments of stillness, for awe and joy. This can be noticing how your baby enjoys watching the falling leaves in the autumn air, or seeing snowflakes for the first time. It could be introducing your baby to the smell of a flower, or the colors of a sunset (sunrise if you are up early with your little one). Take deep breaths in these moments of awed sharing. Let them fill you with the joy of the senses and the present moment.
Babies offer us so much in regards to asana practice. We can offer babies the practices of yoga that relate to being in the world off the yoga mat. Pranayama, Chanting, Aligning, and being Responsive.
Ellynne Skove, LCAT, BC-DMT, NCC, E-RYT teaches GoGo Babies Developmental Movement and Baby Yoga classes in New York and runs professional trainings in the USA and abroad. She has worked for over 30 years with special needs children, new parents, and utilizes pre and perinatal psychology in all of her work. She is a licensed dance/movement therapist, yoga teacher, Polarity therapist, and certified counselor.www.gogobabies.net