Not a fan of joining after-school activities, my daughter was unconvinced with a capital ‘UN’ as I took her to my yoga studio for a taster session of yoga for children. Her unwillingness began to thaw a little at the warmth emanating from the welcoming yoga instructor who greeted her so kindly. As I watched them interact, I realized that very few adults talk to children in the way the way yoga instructor was doing; actually listening to my daughter’s comments and responding to them fairly, respecting her with equal gravity as she would another adult. By the time they had spoken for a very short time, my daughter seemed thoroughly bought in, seeming relieved there were no demands, obligations or rules. It was totally different to school, and introduced her to an activity which invited her to unplug from all the stresses, rules and routines which make up children’s lives – The things we impose on them through our system of education, and which they generally accept, but which often don’t really suit them or resonate with them.
Yoga: More Than Just Sport
While a few yoga instructors focus solely on the physical movements of yoga to improve body tone and fitness – particularly many of the power yoga proponents – yoga is far more than that, creating connection and balance between the body, breath, mind and something deeper, which many call the soul or the heart or the spirit. Whatever you call it, yoga seeks to create all-round well-being throughout the body and the self. And this is the kind of yoga which is taught to children in an age appropriate way, allowing for a child’s attention span, creativity and need for play.
It involves a combination of postures (some easy, and some which can take longer to master), regulated breathing techniques, and also meditation.
The postures of yoga have been taught and fine-tuned over time and also specifically for differing cultures, and for varying abilities. They can be done standing, sitting or lying down, and challenge various muscle groups in the body, along with the mind. For children these poses bring about body awareness and focus, things which roll out through other elements of their lives with positive effects.
In fact yoga is recommended globally by paediatric organizations as potentially effective therapy for varying issues which children can struggle with, such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, anger issues and also simply as a great physical activity for health.
Yoga has been shown to help children with special needs, who often have tension and rigid muscle tone. Yoga stretches the muscles, helping relieve muscle tension and the holding of poses can increase strength. Many poses can have the effect of ‘wringing out’ the body, which help to stimulate and move the digestive system, easing conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), detoxification, constipation, regulation of hormones, blood sugar and insulin levels.
A study in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy reported findings that daily yoga helps children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) remain calmer and lower their levels of anxiety and aggression.
Other studies have found that yoga for teens has helped with cessation of smoking or other addictions, relieve mood swings and anxiety, increase focus, and consequently lead to better examination results.
Further benefits seen in children regularly practicing yoga are:
Develop body awareness and use their bodies healthily
Manage stress through breathing, awareness, meditation and movement
Increase confidence and positive self-image
Learn to tune out, without turning to electronic distraction
Stress and anxiety reduction
Improved emotional balance
Better classroom behaviours (and if teachers use breathing or postural techniques with their students, this creates better ways of dealing with distraction and lack of focus)
Think also about the benefits for both parents and teachers; with the improvement of mental and emotional health in children, the role of the adults guiding them becomes an easier one with less resistance, and a consequent lowering of stress in all concerned. Introducing yoga poses and breathing exercises in class can help teachers to immediately change the mental state and focus of their students.
Helping Children To Help Themselves – Shift Back To The Window!
One of the reason’s yoga is so widely recognized as beneficial to children is that it helps children to moderate their own responses to situations which trigger them.
“Children are very raw,” says Maitri Devi, of TriWolf Shanti Healing. “They can be easily triggered. Many of the children who come to my yoga classes are there because their parents are trying to help them overcome issues – such as ADHD, anger issues, or depression.”
We all have a ‘window of tolerance’ – that is the zone where we function properly and can deal with whatever is coming at us in the course of our day. If an event or situation triggers us, causing us to leave that window of tolerance, it can send us into meltdown with inappropriate stress responses.
In children, we can see them having tantrums, being aggressive, and even having fits. This is one end of the scale and is referred to as hyper-arousal (the fight, flight response). At the opposite end of the scale, referred to as hypo-arousal, children can be withdrawn, depressed, non-communicative; they may just roll themselves into a ball, or want to hug, and not go out.
In both these situations, their frontal cortex – the reasoning part of their brain – has quite literally been disconnected, and all that is left running the show are their survival instincts. The parts of their brain which are designed to keep them safe and alive are in the driving seat, and the problem is, the brain is not capable of knowing there is no genuine threat to life – it is in survival mode, activated by an emotional trigger.
And every child’s window of tolerance is unique, with different things which can push them from it. The window varies in size from child to child, with trauma and loss often decreasing the size of the window of tolerance, and heightening the child's emotional sensitivity, and likelihood of being triggered.
“…When this happens, you can’t talk a child back to their window of tolerance,” Maitri Devi explains, “The reasoning part of their brain has temporarily de-activated, so there’s nothing to reason with. The route back is through movement and breath – the physical body, which talks to the parts of the brain which are activated. When children learn yoga in a calm environment, it gives them the tools to use for when they are under stress.”
If parents understand this and also take time to observe and comprehend what their child is learning at yoga, they are better able to help their child in a situation when they are in a state of hyper or hypo arousal, and to get back to the safety of their window of tolerance. .
For many children, yoga offers physical exercise without the stress of competition. There’s no pressure to score goals or be the fastest or strongest, and there’s no waiting to be picked to join the team. They can take part as an individual, while part of a group, challenging themselves as they master the poses. Poses demanding flexibility might be easy for some, and more difficult for others, while alternative poses challenge balancing ability and strength. There’s something for all body types and abilities, options to accommodate differing abilities, and always new challenges to take poses to the next level.
Yoga is turned to by many who focus on other sports to help improve their bodies and muscles to better perform in their chosen discipline; from rowers, horse riders, those in martial arts, footballers, athletes, in fact all sports, find benefit in yoga’s opening, stretching, strengthening and relaxing effect on their bodies.
What To Expect
A children’s yoga class (for younger children) is very different to teens or adults class; it moves faster, allowing for a child’s attention span, mental and physical abilities, and also the need to learn through play.
The things you can expect your child to experience are:
1> Breathing Awareness
Breathing exercises can energize kids or encourage relaxation, and are taught through games and techniques which help them to connect with their bodies, feeling the result of deep breathing.During these exercises, focus increases, as does their breathing and lung capacity. Stress is naturally reduced and healthy hormones are released.
2> Strengthening & Energizing
Exercises to help build strength, energy and flexibility.The teacher will talk about the different muscles in their body, what they are used for, and awareness and
coordination.Poses often incorporate games and sequences to help memorizing them and also build strength.They will learn how stronger and more relaxed bodies breathe and digest food better, which helps better growth, maintenance of a healthy weight, help them with physical stresses like carrying a backpack, and even play better.
3> Balancing and Core Strength
Balancing poses help children to focus and are particularly helpful for children suffering with attention challenges, teaching them that they can achieve even more difficult balancing poses as they increase their focus on what they are trying to achieve. Games are played in the class, which focus on children’s balancing skills, developing core strength and evoke a meditative feeling, promoting stillness and quieting of the mind.
This quieting, when practiced often, can help kids deal with the stress of living in the modern world where constant stimulation is simply part of the life they are accustomed to.
4> Stretching and Lengthening
The stretching and lengthening of muscles compliments strength, making them more flexible and less prone to pulling, and supporting young, tender joints.
Muscle flexibility benefits older children too who are involved in more competitive sport (indeed all athletes), and are pushing their bodies harder.Muscle flexibility is helpful in preventing injury and also helps in the building of muscle.
5> Focus, and body awareness
Deep breathing exercises help to increase bodily awareness, building a strong connection between what they hear and do, and also how their attention can affect their bodies.Healthy body awareness helps with posture, breathing (and therefore all bodily functions), strength, calmness and confidence.
6> Meditation and Relaxation
Yoga is a naturally meditative practice, so if a child is holding a balancing posture, sitting or lying in meditation, or moving through a series of poses, there's calming, soothing energy at work.Younger children will be encouraged to think of a favourite colour, or a toy, to help them focus, while older children are more able to remain still and quiet for longer.
Meditation at any age is well linked to a reduction of anxiety, depression, stress, and also improved mood regulation, energy and focus, among many other great things.
So in the fast moving modern world, where children are bombarded constantly with technology, images, pressure from piers, teachers and parents, yoga can act as a release valve; a time to be quiet, to move, to meditate, to have fun and express themselves.
There are no demands or pressure, no confusing or overbearing messages or the need to believe in any one thing. It’s just breath, movement and rest.
Why not introduce your child to yoga as a compliment to anything else they are doing, and see for yourself the affect it has on them, hear what they say…and perhaps feel the effects on you too.
With thanks to my friend Maitri Devi, The Yogamama, of TriWolf Shanti Healing - Check her out on Facebook