The Light in Me: Harmony between Yoga & Montessori

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"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.

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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.

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“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.

Montessori and the Magic of Mistakes

Have you ever had the chance to do something amazing, but were too afraid of failing to try? Imagine if, from the age of 2 or 3 years old, you were taught it's not only ok to make mistakes, but encouraged because it often leads to exciting independent discoveries. This could completely reshape the way you see and experience the world.

I’ve been a Montessori teacher for almost 5 years and one of the things I love most about this method are the underlying benefits that are so ingrained in the curriculum you may miss them. It is undoubtedly exciting to see a 4 year old completing Addition work, or to hear a 3 year old reading her first words, but what really makes a Montessori education special is how the freedom, the materials, and the guides allow the child to make mistakes.

When you embark on a career as a Montessori guide and take the certification training, one of the most shocking and difficult things to put into practice at first is allowing the child to explore the materials and sometimes be unsuccessful with them! Montessori lessons are scientifically designed to be self-correcting. This means when a child is completing the Spindle Game and puts an incorrect number of spindles in a numeral box you do not step in and say, “no, that's not right… let me show you.” Instead you let the child complete the lesson, and practice it again another day until he gets it. And amazingly, he does get it, almost every time on his own. Usually the child will come to the natural conclusion he has run out of spindles at the end, realize he made a mistake somewhere and will go back and fix it. You may have to present the lesson another time on another day; as you observe the child faltering, you will notice how proud he is when he corrects himself without you telling him. Whereas if you step in and correct him, he may get discouraged and choose to forgo the lesson entirely. Instead of you being an all-knowing, righteous higher being, you gift the child with the power of exploring for himself. The concept is clearer to him and more meaningful because he came to the conclusion independently by being the little scientific explorer the child so naturally is.

We recently had a group of children move up to Primary from a Pre-Primary room. They are just beginning to be shown new lessons. I presented the quintessential Montessori lesson, the Pink Tower, to a little boy we’ll call Peter. The Pink Tower is a Sensorial lesson with 10 pink cubes that get progressively larger with each one. I presented the lesson slowly, bringing one piece at a time to the rug and placing it gently down to encourage care of the material and graceful, refined movements. After I had brought all the pieces to the rug and laid them out in random order, I built the tower from largest to smallest. We took some time walking around the rug to marvel at our creation and then I disassembled the tower one piece at a time, brought it back to the shelf, and invited Peter to have a turn.

At first, Peter recapitulated my movements precisely. He brought each cube one at a time to the rug and carefully placed it down. When it came time to build the tower, an interesting thing happened. He was able to build the first few in order, largest to smallest, but before he would choose which one he thought was the next largest, he'd look to me every time and ask “is it this one?” And I would say “try it and let's see...” And he would place it on top of the previous cube. If it seemed like a perfect fit, his face would light up and he'd say “it fits!” And sometimes he would choose one just a bit too small and I wouldn't say anything. I didn't need to... because he would place it on, realize it was a bit too small, place it back down and retrieve the correct cube. We continued on in this way and I continued to let Peter make his mistakes, because I knew he would correct himself. When he completed his tower, it looked exactly like mine had, in perfect order and we took a trip around the rug as Peter beamed down at his creation he did “all by himself.”

As I was working with Peter and he continued looking back at me to double check before selecting a cube to see if I would give him the answer, I wondered to myself if we are all born unsure of our intuition. Observing young children, you begin to realize, we are each born a blank slate and our experiences, especially early on in life, shape how much faith we have in ourselves and where we look for answers later on.

The fact that Montessori education and materials are self-correcting, and we as guides are taught to empower the child to make mistakes and later correct himself, leads to young people who hopefully grow into adults that are not constantly looking for guidance or approval outside of themselves. These foundational experiences will teach them that making mistakes is proof that you are trying, and is sometimes the best, most powerful way to learn. They will become confident, strong people who don't back down when a challenge is presented, because they trust their intuition and know they have the answers and resilience within themselves. I believe this is one of the most powerful gifts we as Montessori teachers can give our children - the power to enter the world fearless and believe in themselves.

What the World Needs Now: How Teaching Montessori Can Change Your Life (and the World)

Get ready. This is about to sound crazy, kitschy and maybe a little simple. Assuming you’ve already made the choice to embark on a career as a teacher, imagine waking up and knowing you can make a difference not just in your classroom children’s lives, but in the world? This is how I’ve felt almost every day since jumping ship and making the decision to become a Montessori Teacher. I am amazed and humbled by the transformations that happen in a Montessori classroom when you learn to give a child the freedom to explore and soak in the world around them, and at the same time provide guidance and developmentally appropriate tools to assist them.

The Montessori Method of teaching is dramatically different from traditional education. Some of the ways in which it differs are misconstrued. When you study Montessori, you’re taught to “follow the child” and the materials are displayed on the shelf where the child is free to explore them. This sometimes taunts parents or prospective teachers with the image of young children running wild, sweeping materials off the shelf in an outrageous free-for-all not unlike a jungle. However, allowing children to explore materials unbelievably has the opposite effect.

Montessori emphasizes Freedom within Limits. The children are invited to explore the materials and are given the freedom to observe older children’s lessons, as the classrooms are multi-age[1] . But they are also taught they must first be shown the lessons by a teacher, which are taught in a very specific way. Instead of unruly chaos, you develop a classroom full of children whose natural curiosity and enthusiasm is stoked and primed to learn. You create a classroom full of children who are taught to follow their instincts, make decisions for themselves, and learn early on - with the help of well-trained teachers as guides - what it is they love and have an affinity for. How many adults do you know that could have benefitted from growing up in a Montessori environment and cultivating a sense of inner direction as a child?

Montessori classrooms also look very different from traditional preschool or elementary school classrooms. They are not adorned with signs, rules, and loud pictures displaying the alphabet. They are purposely beautiful, neat, orderly, and tidy to encourage children to feel calm, relaxed, and inspired to explore and learn. The lessons are similarly thought-out and purposeful to engage a child’s interest whilst (unknowingly to the child) teaching him countless lessons at once. For example, the Practical Life lessons, things like Washing Dishes or Bathing a Baby, cater to a child's natural instincts to explore and work with water, engage in purposeful movement that requires them to slow down and become aware of their body in space by transporting water from one side of the class to the other. These long, sequential lessons also teach them responsibility, care of the environment, and attention to detail. When cleaning up they are taught to do everything left to right so as to reinforce how we read and write later on. And best of all - the lessons are designed to interest children so they want to work with them for hours on end, amazingly transforming the attention span of a 3 year old by directing his energy and giving him purpose.

In Montessori training you will find every single lesson has multiple purposes and has been time-tested to develop children that are eager to engage with materials. The lessons focus not only on teaching children Math or Language skills, although the scope of what a 3-5 year old is capable of in these subjects will blow your mind (Binomial Addition and Multiplication at 5 years old?!) Teaching in a Montessori room, you will discover that when a child is left to follow his interests without pressure or prompting from adults, reading and writing come naturally. However, the Montessori curriculum focuses on developing the whole child. Teaching manners, leadership, even a complete peace curriculum. What emerges after 3 years in Primary is a child who excels academically, can confidently express themselves, and cares for other people and the world around him. He is beginning to realize he is part of something greater than himself.

When you make the decision to become a Montessori teacher, you don't do it for the money. It is not always easy. Some days you will laugh. Some days you may cry. You will worry about doing too much for the child and squandering his sense of independence, or not enough and missing the “sensitive periods,” but you will never doubt your purpose. And in those moments where you are frustrated with yourself or perhaps it's rained for a week straight and your kids haven't had any outsidetime to expel their 5 year old endless energy and you are tired, a little girl or boy will see you and instinctively give you a hug. Or take a new, younger friend by the hand and gently help guide him to work. Or simply ask you to show them a lesson, so innocent, sweet, and full of curiosity that you have helped awaken, and you will be filled up again to the very top. And you'll remember why yours is one of the best careers - not a mere job - but a calling.