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Learning to be still: Emma Mardell Q&A on yoga for kids

Kate Foster

Emma Mardell is one of Badd Karma’s amazing Baddassadors and works as a SENCO in an Essex primary school. The moment she told me her yoga story I fell in love with her energy, sensitivity and vision of bringing yoga and mindfulness into the lives of children as essential tools to help them navigate the stressful and often-confusing business of childhood. I asked her to tell us more.

Emma, why was it so important for you to bring yoga to the children in your school?

I spent a lot of my childhood unable to enjoy moments and new experiences because I was fearful. When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time in my head… it felt like a constant conversation going on that would confuse and exhaust me. But I kept it to myself and that was very hard. I now know that mind chatter is completely normal, but the difference is that I have to tools to slow my thoughts down and acknowledge them, but not act upon them. I wanted to teach children how to do that in a safe environment and help them realise it’s normal to have lots of thoughts, good and bad. I truly believe that once you have this tool, you’re far more able to deal with stress, change and trauma.

How did you start to share this wisdom with the children?

Teaching yoga to little ones is very much play- and story-based, often around a theme like the sea or the jungle. Introducing the names of poses and their purposes comes later, but I always have a little chat with the kids about what yoga is when they first start my class. I tell the little ones that yoga is a fun way of moving our bodies that makes us feel good. They’re very active, so I help them improve their concentration and balance through games, rhymes and stories.

And what about older children?

That’s when you start to introduce the names of the poses and sequences, but it’s important not to get too hung up on poses—I remind them that yoga is a balance between breath and body and a safe place for them to find peace and calm. We do a lot of partner poses to help them build awareness of their core and energy centres. I also show them different kinds of breathing techniques and explain why they’re helpful. I like to relate how sportsmen and women like Ryan Giggs have used yoga to prolong their careers, too.

What’s a typical class like?

We might follow a theme of ‘improving concentration’ where we explore different types of breathing and then go on to do some balancing poses like tree pose or dancer pose. A favourite one for the older girls is hero pose and the boys seem to love warrior pose, especially when we pull back our bow and arrow and shoot for our goals!

How easy (or hard) is to get support to start something like this?

Parents and children were into it, but the biggest challenge is getting funding, because budgets are so tight. Technically, I could be earning a lot more money from doing private classes, but I want yoga to be available to all children and not just the ones who are able to afford it.

When does it feel most worthwhile?

Every lesson! The bit I love the most is when you get to see the children during relaxation, just still and at peace. It’s so satisfying to know you’ve played a part in that. I also do some sessions in school with some of the children who have special educational needs and it’s particularly rewarding seeing them hold a pose after practising for weeks. The other day, I had a little group of kids who are quite wild together: I just sorting some stuff out and when I turned around, they were all resting in easy pose with their eyes shut—just patiently waiting! I had tears in my eyes because they were learning how to be still without any instruction from me.

That’s a massive ability to cultivate as a kid! What would you say to anyone wanting to introduce their children or pupils to yoga?

Give it a try - there’s so much more to yoga than sitting on a mat. We have so much fun.

What’s next for you?

I teach a small group in school every week and I’m now also taking larger groups of Year 6 children in the run-up to their SATs. After Easter, my after school club, Kula Kids Yoga, will start up and I can’t wait! Kula means ‘community’ or ‘tribe’ in Sanskrit and I truly am trying to create a space where children can feel a sense of belonging away from the classroom environment.

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