A little yoga goes a long way
A new book on yoga for children is enchanting, but there's a harrowing story behind it, Judith Woods finds
When Gwyneth Paltrow was recently given a yoga picture book by a friend for her 16-month-old daughter, Apple, she was entranced. The 32-year-old actress, who has practised ashtanga yoga for many years, was so inspired by Little Yoga that she agreed to provide the voiceover for a DVD adaptation - without charging a fee.
The book, written by Rebecca Whitford, a yoga practitioner and mother of three from Surrey, is undoubtedly charming. Beautifully simple, with bold illustrations, it's a captivating introduction to some of the animal poses of yoga; the butterfly, the bird, the dog and the monkey.
At the back are photographs of two little girls, demonstrating the postures. One of them, pretty, dark-eyed and dressed in bright pink, is Scarlett, Whitford's own daughter.
But there's a hidden poignancy to the pictures for behind the success of the book lies a harrowing story, that of Scarlett's battle against cancer. She was just 14 months old when her mother discovered a hard lump in her right side; a biopsy revealed a large mass of cancerous tissue in her liver.
"My partner, Steve, and I were devastated by the discovery Scarlett had cancer," says Whitford. "I didn't know what to do with the pain I felt, it was so horrific. Either one of us would have swapped places with her if it had been possible."
After many months of treatment, Scarlett, now four, was physically weakened by her ordeal. Yet, when she saw her mother doing her yoga practice, she was keen to copy her. Whitford showed her gentle movements and stretches, which exercised her body and strengthened her muscles.
"I looked for a book about yoga that was accessible to young children, but there wasn't one," she says. "So I put together a booklet for Scarlett, and it eventually evolved into Little Yoga."
Long before Scarlett's illness was diagnosed, instinct alerted Whitford to the fact that something was amiss with her new baby. Yet it was more than a year before tests revealed that she was suffering from cancer.
"I'd had a feeling something major was wrong almost since birth," says Whitford, who also has a 14-year-old son, Oliver, and a two-year-old daughter, Liberty. "Scarlett was a very irritable, fretful baby, even to the point where she didn't find me holding her or breastfeeding a comfort, and I was constantly taking her to the doctor. But, because I didn't feel I was getting anywhere, I took her to a different doctor in the practice each time.
"Looking back, that might have been a mistake. Perhaps if I'd stuck with the same GP, the cancer might have been spotted more quickly."
Scarlett underwent surgery, and throughout the gruelling rounds of chemotherapy treatment, spent months at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Surrey, with her parents keeping a 24-hour vigil, in shifts.
Whitford gave up the diploma course in yoga she had just begun in order to be by her daughter's bedside. Photographs from that time show a delicate, watchful little girl, her once abundant hair cropped short to lessen the shock of it falling out in clumps.
To complicate matters further, in the week of Scarlett's diagnosis, Whitford realised she was pregnant with Liberty. Her reaction was numbness, rather than delight.
"We weren't overjoyed by the news; we couldn't possibly feel joyful when we had no idea what the outcome would be for Scarlett," she says.
"Steve would do the nights with her, so I could get some rest. It was a terrible time for us all, but at least Scarlett was too young to feel anxious about the future, or to dread what was going to happen; she just lived one day at a time.
"There were parents there with older children, who had to talk them through the treatment they were getting and the possibility of it not working. I can't imagine how that must have felt." Fortunately, the treatment was successful, and Scarlett has now been in remission for two-and-a-half-years. After leaving hospital, Whitford found that yoga had a wonderfully therapeutic effect.
"I was doing a little bit of yoga at home and Scarlett started copying me," says Whitford. "We had a very intense relationship when she was in hospital and this was a way of relaxing, having fun and just enjoying doing something together." When Whitford showed the booklet she had made to a friend's mother, professional illustrator Martina Selway, she immediately asked her to do some illustrations.
A deal with publishers Hutchinson soon followed, and an American DVD narrated by Gwyneth Paltrow will be released next year.
For all its simplicity, the book has an instant appeal to toddlers. My daughter, Lily, aged three, might normally regard such a book as babyish, but she was fascinated by the pictures of the children, and, without prompting, started to try the movements depicted. That she calls it "oga" is neither here nor there.
Whitford, who will complete her diploma course this year, is working on a second book, Sleepy Little Yoga, a sequence of movements for winding down at bedtime.
"Yoga is wonderful for children," she says. "It helps them retain their natural flexibility, which they can lose, slumped over a PlayStation or at a desk in school." The instinctive ability to breathe deeply into the abdomen is another skill that youngsters lose as they grow older. Adults tend towards shallow breathing, especially at moments of stress.
Controlling the breath is a key element of yoga; drawing it down into the belly reduces tension in the body, slows the heart and improves oxygen supply to the brain. While this is too advanced for toddlers, older children can learn to master it.
Whitford believes that an early foundation in the principles of yoga will have spin-off benefits in later life. She is not alone. Fenella Lindsell, founder of Yoga Bugs, which runs courses for children across the country, is convinced that yoga builds confidence and creativity as well as flexibility.
"At Yoga Bugs, children exercise their minds as well as their bodies," says Lindsell. "We use the traditional yoga postures, but at about three times the speed. The postures are part of an exciting story; they might be in outer space, or deep in a jungle, surfing on boards or running after penguins.
"We give them confidence with lots of praise and positive feedback, and make them believe they are the best possible thing ever. Life is a competitive battle to be successful, and yoga equips children to deal with stress and to believe in themselves."
Whitford hopes that Little Yoga will inspire more parents to practise yoga with their children, for the sake of body and spirit.
"Yoga is a wonderful tool to help children find a sense of stillness and calm. Ask a child to close its eyes, and it scrunches them up tightly," she says.
"If you simply tell them to lie on the floor and relax, they can't do it; but explain that they should feel soft, like butter melting on toast, and they visibly relax before your eyes."
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