The Light in Me: Harmony Between Yoga and Montessori

"Always be a work in progress..." - Emily Lillian

"Always be a work in progress..."
- Emily Lillian

Every time I’m in a yoga class, slowly unrolling or carefully rolling up my mat - I have immediate deja vu to earlier in the day when I showed one of my 3 year-olds how to gently roll up their rug after completing a lesson. Each time I practice, I cannot help being reminded that the parallels between yoga and Montessori do not end there. Yoga has tremendous benefits for any person - young or old - but it can be especially transformative for children, especially when coupled with a Montessori education where the philosophies complement each other so well.

I teach in a Primary Montessori room with children ages 2 ½-6. I first started incorporating Yoga into the classroom a little over a year ago. I do not consider myself a “yogi”; I do not attend classes consistently (the price tag often keeps me away); and I am admittedly a little laid-back and “go-with-the-flow” in the way most Millennials are these days - but you won’t see me doing headstands or chanting. I fell in love with the peace and calm Yoga brought my mind. Every time I leave a Yoga class or do some stretching at home, I am left feeling centered, capable, and ready to take on any challenge that awaits me. Bringing Yoga into the classroom, I hoped would introduce this feeling to my own little guys.

I started by creating some cards with pictures of children in simple yoga poses on them. Cobra. Downward Dog. Warrior. I placed the cards on a tray and introduced the children to them in small groups as well as a whole class. We talked beforehand about how yoga is typically not a silly activity, but a chance to be quiet, focused, and challenge your body. After the initial giggles from falling out of balancing poses, a calmness settled over the group. You wouldn’t believe it’s possible for a group of 40 four year-olds to be completely silent until you see it. Instead of paying attention to each other, they began to focus on themselves and the simple act of trying to stay afloat while perched on one foot during tree pose. The Yoga poses forced them to become more aware of their body in space, similar to the focus and determination I see in a 3 year old who carefully transports a pitcher full of water to a table across the room to complete the Practical Life activity of Bathing a Baby. The Montessori curriculum is full of opportunities for the child to develop spatial awareness and body control. There are lessons where they are taught to carefully walk, skip, shuffle, or jump on a line. They are taught to walk around the rugs in the classroom in one of the very first lessons in Primary so as to respect others’ work space and cultivate careful, controlled movements. Incorporating yoga proved to be another fun way to introduce self awareness and gross motor skills while simultaneously developing many other skills as well.

The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness. - Sakyong Mipham

The body benefits from movement, and the mind benefits from stillness.
- Sakyong Mipham

The Montessori method of teaching differs from more traditional styles in that we welcome and encourage failure. Instead of mistakes being a cue for a teacher to step in and correct, the self-correcting materials in the classroom allow the child to explore and experiment, discovering mistakes on their own without developing a fear of failure. Montessori teachers are taught about the benefits and necessity of unlimited time to practice. In Primary classrooms, there is a sacred 3 hour work block which is meant to be uninterrupted so children have all the time in the world to practice their lessons, even the same one the entire time if they wish! Practice creates neural pathways in the brain that ensure whatever concept they are working on will be understood completely and stick in their brain long-term. Good Yoga teachers encourage the same tenets. I recently took a class where the teacher picked a word at the beginning for us to think about, which was part of her theme. Her word was “carve.” She explained that Yoga is not about nailing the most difficult, obscure poses, the “one-handed, split-foot triangle, bird of flight while somehow keeping a smile on your face” pose. Yoga is about showing up on your mat and practicing. Maybe the first time you try to lift your leg up behind you for a dancer pose, you only get your big toe off the ground before tipping over. That’s OK. Maybe next time you pick your foot up a few centimeters off the floor. That’s OK. Maybe the third time you are able to pitch forward a bit to parallel and finally kick your foot out behind you and balance for a few seconds. Just as you carve gradually into a tree before making a mark, it takes time to get the outcome you want. Montessori and Yoga both celebrate not only the moment when you “get it,” but the beauty in the process it takes to get there.

The act of attempting to find balance in yoga poses brings stillness and focus to the mind, and the purposeful movement so ingrained in Montessori lessons does the same. Sensorial materials such as the Pink Tower require the child to bring each piece of a 10 piece set to a rug, one at a time, often across the room, on purpose. The back and forth movements force the child to train his body to be controlled by his mind. I will often show a child the Geometric Cabinet, which looks like a simple puzzle. But I will present it on a rug at one of end of the room and then transport the tray with the frames of the puzzle pieces to a rug on the opposite side of the room. The child then has to trace a frame on one rug, remember what shape he is looking for,  find it on the other rug, and bring it back to place in the frame. Using the endless amounts of energy in a 3 year old’s body in a directly meaningful way, while engaging their brain, allows them to be much more focused, rather than having to compete with their constantly buzzing bodies.

One of the founding principles of Montessori is to follow the child and grant them freedom within limits. We as teachers are taught that a child learns best when they are interested and drawn to what they are learning. This is not to say that if they love reading that they never have to work on another addition problem in their life; rather we believe they go through phases where they are interested in certain subjects, and if they don’t, then it is our job to make a subject more enticing for them and catch when they are interested in it. In this way a Montessori child discovers their interests at a foundational age. Just as the engagement of focusing on challenging poses or your breath during Yoga forces outside stimuli to quiet and allows you to refocus your mind, because children are granted freedom and autonomy in a Montessori classroom, they learn to listen to their intuition and follow their passions.

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” - The Bhagavad Gita

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”
- The Bhagavad Gita

While there are many parallels between practicing Yoga and a Montessori education - and many benefits to marrying the two - one of the most prominent and encompassing is the way both focus on you as a microcosm. Yoga and Montessori reminds adults and children we are part of something greater. Yoga reminds us it is important to honor ourselves so we can bring the best version of ourselves out into the world and share our light. In a Montessori classroom, there is an entire Peace curriculum devoted to serving and engaging meaningfully with others. Children are taught to prepare food to help develop their ability to follow sequenced directions and focus, but they also get to bring the bananas they cut around to their classmates. They learn at an early age how amazing it feels to give to others; to spread happiness and mutual good grace. They learn over and over the importance of using their words to communicate with a friend they are having a disagreement with and how to do so effectively. A Montessori curriculum also introduces children to the idea of Caring for the Environment through lessons like Watering Plants and the clean up processes involved in most Practical Life lessons. Each Yoga class ends with a mutual “namaste,” which means the light in me recognizes the light in you. Montessori children are taught through lessons that focus on the child as a part of something greater, with responsibilities to themselves, others, and the planet, that they can make a difference and to share their light.