What can we learn from babies? Apparently a lot, especially in movement education. The Breathing Project’s co-director Amy Matthews has created a safe and friendly environment for the youngest among us, along with their caregivers, to explore the time of life when reaching out to explore is the most natural thing in world.
Every Friday in her Babies! class, Amy is on her stomach, down on the mat (in this case, a colorful interlocking play mat) interacting one-on-one with New York City’s littlest yogis. Holding and massaging tiny fists and feet, Amy (a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator through the School for Body-Mind Centering) and her assistants immerse themselves with these new world explorers, observing their movement patterns and sharing notes with supportive parents hovering close by.
I recently sat on the sidelines to see what these innovative sessions are all about. Moms and dads, singly or together, shared the mat with their little ones, setting them free to interact with their surroundings--early learning toys, activity tables, stuffed animals--and each other.
At first I was transfixed; could I ever get past the cuteness factor? Noticing the age range--newborn through toddler--I wondered what would happen in the next hour. Then I settled back to take in the youngest generation doing what they do best: navigating their world, fueled by curiosity and desire, and reaching outward.
One thirteen month-old girl occupied a corner of the mat in a perfect hero’s pose, her blue eyes big and wide as she took in the activity all around her. Then she rose and pointed toward her sippy cup several feet away, while, I kid you not, in a Warrior 2 stance. After some refreshment, she began to make the rounds on the mat.
Babies being babies, there was a lot of wanting: stuff to put in mouths, places to go, people to see. The mat was filled with smiles and laughter, and constant movement.
Creating circumstances to learn what to do next is part of the evolution. Amy notes, “Babies are learning new skills all the time, and the progression of little steps is as important as getting to the big landmarks of sitting, crawling and walking.”
While on his or her stomach, a baby will first use hands and fingers: to reach, but also for weight-bearing as they push up to look around. That stimulates and creates choices in the nervous system, leading to a process of accidental movement which becomes volitional movement.
You don’t need to be a parent to observe Babies! or to take the class which immediately follows: & Adults. (However, you do need to observe the first class in order to take the second). The first thing we did after packing up the toys and picking up the mat was lie still for ten minutes. It was as if we were giving ourselves a “time out” to get centered into our adult bodies after so much teeming activity.
After that, we then got to the heart of this equally unique class. What had we observed, and what could we take back into our own practices and lives?
For me it was an open, joyful, in-the-moment energy, a lot of squats and some occasional topples, and curiously I had noticed not one child’s pose.
Sarah Barnaby, one of Amy's assistant teachers, mentioned “fingers, hands, mouths--open, exploring, taking in the world.”
Amy volunteered something that caught her professional eye: a pose that came up several times with some of the crawlers that involved favoring the forward leg for stepping through as they moved ahead. Some put their knee wide out, which could lead to asymmetry in the spinal column.
Other seemingly little things like this can lead to favoring a side, inhibiting our movement as we get older. Therefore, Amy sometimes guides to correct. Getting that forward leg to center under will lead to the best form for standing. She also notes that moving from a squat to a standing position builds confidence, and that the occasional fall that accompanies it is best treated as a surprise--a new learning experience.
"The challenge is to support babies in developing their own skills at their own speed,
while knowing that as soon as they are born, everyone and everything that surrounds them is influencing them in subtle and obvious ways, such as how we carry them. There is a fine line between creating situations where they can find their own way to a movement skill, and imposing something they don't yet have the capacity to integrate."
Part of this class involves exploring poses that babies evoked in our observations. Favoring a side, as Amy had noted, can start early. So we sat to one side, the favored one, and then switched to the other. Ow. This should serve as a reminder to try and alternate regularly, to undo some of our ingrained body habits. I reflected on my own excruciatingly lopsided pigeon pose, and wondered what the heck I was doing to myself in another era as I crawled around our linoleum floor trying to catch Pandy, our collie puppy.
I assumed that most parents in attendance were already practicing yogis, but to my surprise Amy said no. She added, “Here parents can be participants without being directors or entertainers.” Or yoga instructors.
“Babies don't need to be taught to explore and be curious. We need to meet them where they are, value how much they are already doing, and create opportunities for them to find their own way. It's not about hitting milestones or getting to positions, it's about the process of learning, falling, going out and finding our way back.”
That’s a lesson we can follow throughout our lives, with people of all ages. Amy Matthews is here to help us rediscover this.
Babies! is held at 11am on Fridays but in September will change to 10:30-12. Check the website for summer schedule, cancellations, etc.
--Sharon Watts is both the author and illustrator of this article. For more of her creative work, click here.