By Michelle Macdonell
Yoga comes from a root word in Sanskrit that literally means “union.” The union of body, mind, and soul, this implies that any being with a body, mind, and spirit can benefit from this practice. It’s not quite as common to hear of children picking up a yoga practice as it is to hear of yoga’s growing popularity amongst adults, but that is not to say that children do not have just as much (if not more) to gain from doing yoga as adults do. In fact, it has been found that children who are introduced to yoga have a lot to gain from the practice, including the advantage of starting young and continuing throughout the rest of their lives.
This is a new world we live in, on where stress and tension are inevitable and on the rise, and not just limited to adults. I often wonder what kids are so stressed about, what worries could a child possibly have that are so overpowering they cause insecurities, meltdowns, anxiety, and even depression? The reality of the answers to that question are overwhelming enough to cause a sense of fear and worry in anyone, stresses from school, peers, extracurricular activities, and even home life can easily bog down on the pure spirit of a child. The truth is that this world is a stressful place, but we don’t have to let it get to us. Imagine if you could have applied the simple breathing and relaxation techniques of a regular yoga practice all throughout your entire life, I can almost guarantee you would be an almost effortlessly, calm individual. And so why not teach our youth an age old (and drug free), safe way to handle the cards they are dealt in life?
The benefits of yoga for kids are unmatched by any other practice mentally and physically. In young bodies, yoga aides in developing the brain and intellect as well as promoting coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility. Yoga helps build strong bones, improves respiration and circulation, and can even lower cholesterol and blood pressure. And through deep breathing, stretching, and relaxation techniques, yoga can protect the body from the physical damages of stress. Not to mention how excellent it is for over all health and wellness, allowing the young body to form and grow without the added stress of jarred joints and weight bearing exercise. Yoga improves the common slouched posture of kids, and can help with sleep disturbances and headaches as well.
In young minds, yoga shines. A regular practice boosts confidence and self esteem as a child’s body changes and grows, through increased body awareness. Yoga calms the mind and brings a sense of peace to the body and spirit, even in stressful situations. Children who learn these techniques early on will be less prone to anger and anxiety as adults, along with a better ability to fend off stresses associated with peer pressure, body image, school work, and home life. This practice definitely comes in handy in dealing with hormonal changes or in handling difficult emotions. Yoga promotes creativity and imagination (especially in children learning to mimic the poses of animals and things in nature. Ex: trees, cats, etc). Developing a regular yoga practice helps to expand awareness, promotes mental sharpness, and helps to develop an overall sense of calmness in life.
For children yoga is fun, it encourages them to do the things their bodies naturally do, and can help them maintain their flexibility throughout a lifetime. Kids love to do things together and yoga lets them work with each other to get into postures and to build confidence individually and as a group. Also kids love to chant together, they can feel the strong vibration “OM” creates when chanted as a group. It’s empowering.
In teaching yoga to kids it is important to keep their imaginations and attention spans in mind. Children under the age of six years old can comfortably maintain in a class for about 15 minutes, while children ages six and up can withstand up to 25 minutes. For younger children it is most important to let them flex their imaginations, even though they are quite flexible they will most likely not be able to perform the poses exactly, this is not important. for children ages 6 and under we are mainly focused on movement and breath, taking them on a “safari”, for example, where they get to be the animals they come across(in yoga poses), is a fun and effective exercise. As they start to get older you can move into more traditional poses, aiming for them to hold each pose for up to 1 minute. Getting a child of any age to relax (as in corpse pose) for an extended period of time can be pretty difficult, but this practice of meditation and stillness is an important part of their yoga routine.
We are all well aware of the childhood obesity epidemic in this country, it is attacking our youth at a rapid rate. Not only does it get kids moving but in a classroom setting children are encouraged to work as a team, helping their partners in certain postures, such as the bridge pose. Where kids can often feel singled out, yoga teaches them that we need to help each other in life. Yoga gives children a non-competitive, non-jugemental environment in which they can get physical exercise as well as learn that they have the power to change their own lives. And childhood obesity isn’t just about overeating, there is a disconnection there between the child’s body and the food that they are putting into it. Yoga can help make this connection, making kids more aware of how the foods they eat affect their bodies and minds, seeing food as nourishment.
Yoga has also been proven effective in children with special needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, cerebral palsy, and downs syndrome, to name a few. And it has even been used successfully in children with cancer, helping them to cope with their diagnosis and to better handle scary medical procedures.
In children with ADHD, including yoga into therapy sessions has made marked improvements in organizational skills, relaxation, and an increased tolerance for sitting and performing fine motor tasks, such as writing, grasping small objects, and fastening clothing. In one study, a child’s focus originally lasted about 5 to 7 minutes and after just two months of regular practice she was able to partake in a table top activity for at least 15 to 20 minutes.
In another study, a boy with autism who barely spoke or made eye contact not only seemed more engaged and less shy when he heard the words “Hare Om” being chanted, but the breathing and imagery techniques associated with yoga poses helped strongly enhance his ability to relax.
In instances where yoga is included in therapy with children who have special needs, not only are the developmental success rates high but the practice is something that can be maintained for a lifetime. Where as, a lot of specific therapies are discontinued once a particular condition or behavior has been corrected. Yoga is a lifetime of self development, and is something that can be practiced alone.
Teaching yoga to children should be simple, fun, and open. And it’s something that parents and children can do together. Practicing as a family evokes a feeling of closeness. And parents can benefit as well, by enabling them to better deal with the stresses and challenges of parenthood, especially in families with difficult children or children with special needs.
Yoga is a way of bringing the mind, body and spirit together to breathe as one. This is the source of vitality. Now more than ever we need this practice to reconnect us to ourselves, each other, and the earth. Teaching our children this practice will raise them to be mindful adults and could quite possibly turn our whole world around, as they are our future.
© Copyright 2011 – Michelle Macdonell