This is the third in a series of articles about teaching Yamas and Niyamas to children.

Little Girl Holding Seedling Young children are natural givers.  How many of us mothers (and fathers) have enjoyed an unexpected bombardment with hugs and kisses, or a spontaneous “I love you, Mama!”  How many have adorned ourselves with homemade necklaces, and decorated our houses with creatively inspired artwork?  When our children are young, we are blessed with reminders of their loving and giving nature.  It’s a joyful time, and one that passes swiftly. 

As much as we regard the development of their personalities with curiosity and pride, it’s an undeniable fact that self-discovery and self-involvement go hand-in-hand.  Finding out who we are is an inward search that occupies much of our time and our attention – even as adults.  And while it’s a grand adventure, it curbs that inborn tendency to give – and, over time, can cultivate a habit of taking.  True, most of our bad habits are unintentional.  But this is exactly why it’s so important to help children become more aware of their behavior and more intentional in their actions.

In yoga, “not-taking” is called asteya, which is the third of the yamas, or restraints.  Yoga teaches us to become better witnesses of our thoughts and our actions, helping us break our bad habits and cultivate good ones in their place.  Since, as they say, “old habits die hard,” it’s always better to plant the seed of awareness when children are young.  A mindful children’s yoga class will reinforce this idea over and over again, every time children walk through the studio door.  Parents can do the same at home. 

There are so many opportunities to share wisdom with our children (keeping in mind that it’s often most effective when they don’t know we’re doing it!).  Asteya is about more than just taking another child’s toy, or stealing someone’s ipod from their backpack.  It’s about the entirety of our interaction within the world around us.  If we crush spiders under our heels, we disrupt – or take away - the natural balance spiders help maintain in the insect population.  If we carve our initials into a tree trunk and damage the tree, what do we take from the birds and squirrels who rely on that tree for shelter?  If we are unkind to our friends, we take away their joy.  Even if it’s just for a few moments, do we really have the right to rob someone of their happiness and sense of stability?  And, perhaps most of all, what right do we have to criticize ourselves for being less then perfect, to take away our own joy and deplete the richness of our love of self?

Begin by cultivating awareness of behavior.  Think of it as tilling the soil, preparing it for planting.  Then, go to work as the gardener.  Plant the seeds of giving.  Show children how to give.  Be their example.  Create rituals that honor generosity – scattering thistle seed for the birds in winter; picking up trash that clogs up a local stream; making cards for residents of a nursing home; volunteering your time, as a family, in a soup kitchen; creating small works of art to gift to friends and family.  The act of giving generously of ourselves – without thought of what we receive in return – is called karma yoga.  By planting and nurturing seeds of giving, we help our children grow into generosity and kindness – like the giant oak tree, giving oxygen, shade, acorns and beauty. 

Working the garden is hard work.  It’s an overwhelming responsibility to guide our children through the quagmires of selfish behavior – especially when most of us struggle with it in ourselves.  But by being intentional as we point them in the right direction, we help ourselves become more aware of each step we take on our own path.  Just like our children, we too are growing.  So while we experience the joy of watching our children blossom and grow, we can fill ourselves with the freedom and the richness of living that results when we open ourselves to growth.  By giving ourselves, we become both the teacher and the student.  And when we blossom and flourish alongside our children – well, just imagine what a lovely garden that would be.

Lisa Burk-McCoy, RYT200, is working toward a 500 hour teaching certificate in Classical Yoga from the YogaLife Institute.  She also holds a prenatal yoga certification, and children's yoga certifications from ChildLight Yoga and Itsy Bitsy Yoga. Lisa currently serves as an instructor and business consultant for ChildLight Yoga. When not practicing yoga, she dabbles as a musician, playing flute in a local contra-dance band and teaching classical flute lessons to children and adults. She is blessed with a wonderful family–a husband, son and daughter, and a menagerie of pets. They make their home in Exeter, NH.