How Yoga Benefits Kids

Yoga & Mindfulness Practices For Our Youth
Michele Guess, ERYT, YACEP, PharmD – January 15, 2019

Today’s students face tremendous pressure to achieve within a world that is often overwhelming. The tools of yoga and mindfulness offer proven methods of developing the inner resilience needed to navigate physical, mental and emotional stress. Bringing these practices to our children is a simple way to support making your students’ lives healthier,
and can increase their capacity to learn effectively, manage challenging emotions, self regulate behavior, and achieve personal and academic success. Kula Yoga Kids offers a unique program combining yoga and mindfulness practices in a straightforward and intentional way. Our approach incorporates five key elements in each session: Connect, Breathe, Move, Focus and Relax. Within these elements students are taught fundamental life
skills that are immediately available for daily use.

Here are just some of the benefits of yoga and mindfulness practices in kids:
Physical
• Improved overall health
• Increased strength and flexibility
• Improved body image
• Better sleep quality
Mental
• Improved executive function
• Improved focus and attention
• Increased engagement
• Greater sensory integration
Emotional
• Improved emotional regulation
• Greater self confidence
• Increased resilience
• Decreased stress and anxiety
Social
• Greater compassion and empathy
• Improved communication
• Increased leadership skills
• Reduced bullying
• Greater sense of community

When asana was developed by the ancient yogis, they used the inspiration of nature and animals to relate all poses to the human body. We use these same tools to day to let kids better relate to their inner selves as well as the world around them. For example, when using the asana of Volcano, (Urdhva Hastasana), we can teach a child how to deal with feelings like anger in a way that is not harmful to any kids around them by “exploding” their arms up into the air while letting out a scream/“eruption”. Kids love to move an play so when we couple this with some asana instruction, they get to experience their bodies in all different positions while breathing and developing an awareness of where they are in their world physically, as well as mentally and emotionally. They can even pretend to take on all the qualities of the asana they are making thereby developing empathy for nature, animals, and people around them.

Balance postures like tree pose (Vrikshasana) are beneficial to kids not only for their normal physical growth and development of strength, flexibility, and body awareness but also using it as a tool to discover if there is balance in their lives, such as between active and quiet times. It also puts them in touch with nature without even going outside as they imagine the roots of the tree grounding down through the earth while reaching their branches up toward the sun, maintaining their strength and balance while being flexible enough to sway in the wind.

Kids yoga includes mindfulness practices both through the actual asana practice as well as other activities such as pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation. Have you ever gotten so wound up and stressed that you couldn’t think straight and were in severe reaction to whatever the stessor was? A few deep breaths later and all is well again. Just like adults, kids need these breathing techniques too. Brahmari breathing (bee breath) is a great example of how we can use our own breath to calm us and find our center. This is a technique of covering the ears while making a buzzing noise through our teeth. This enables the child to block out any outside stimulus while sending a soothing vibration throughout the body to calm their nervous system. This is extremely empowering to a child that may feel he/she has no control over their current situation.

Meditation is that process of turning inward, finding our center and balance through breath and focus. Giving children a guided meditation to help them relax the thoughts while letting them enjoy a story or adventure is a great way they can “reset” their brains anytime during the day. You can make up a meditation to tell them or even play one directly from an app on your smartphone. It can be 5 minutes or 50, and the results are similar as it provides an invitation to turn inward and explore the imagination while simultaneously relaxing the repetitive thoughts. As the thoughts settle, peace, relaxation, and balance return.

Yoga, in the forms of asana (postures), breath (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana), give kids the tools they need to navigate through this ever changing, fast paced world. The three together create a wholeness and sense of balance in creating the mind, body, and soul connection.

The Benefits of Yoga for Kids

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Our children live in a hurry-up world of busy parents, school pressures, incessant lessons, video games, malls, and competitive sports. We usually don’t think of these influences as stressful for our kids, but often they are. The bustling pace of our children’s lives can have a profound effect on their innate joy—and usually not for the better.

I have found that yoga can help counter these pressures. When children learn techniques for self-health, relaxation, and inner fulfillment, they can navigate life’s challenges with a little more ease. Yoga at an early age encourages self-esteem and body awareness with a physical activity that’s noncompetitive. Fostering cooperation and compassion—instead of opposition—is a great gift to give our children.

Children derive enormous benefits from yoga. Physically, it enhances their flexibility, strength, coordination, and body awareness. In addition, their concentration and sense of calmness and relaxation improves. Doing yoga, children exercise, play, connect more deeply with the inner self, and develop an intimate relationship with the natural world that surrounds them. Yoga brings that marvelous inner light that all children have to the surface.

When yogis developed the asanas many thousands of years ago, they still lived close to the natural world and used animals and plants for inspiration—the sting of a scorpion, the grace of a swan, the grounded stature of a tree. When children imitate the movements and sounds of nature, they have a chance to get inside another being and imagine taking on its qualities. When they assume the pose of the lion (Simhasana) for example, they experience not only the power and behavior of the lion, but also their own sense of power: when to be aggressive, when to retreat. The physical movements introduce kids to yoga’s true meaning: union, expression, and honor for oneself and one’s part in the delicate web of life.

A Child’s Way

Yoga with children offers many possibilities to exchange wisdom, share good times, and lay the foundation for a lifelong practice that will continue to deepen. All that’s needed is a little flexibility on the adult’s part because, as I quickly found out when I first started teaching the practice to preschoolers, yoga for children is quite different than yoga for adults.

Six years ago, I had my first experience teaching yoga to kids at a local Montessori school. I looked forward to the opportunity with confidence—after all, I’d been teaching yoga to adults for quite a while, had two young children of my own, and had taught creative writing for several years in various Los Angeles schools. But after two classes with a group of 3 to 6-year-olds, I had to seriously reevaluate my approach. I needed to learn to let go (the very practice I had been preaching for years) of my agenda and my expectations of what yoga is and is not.

When I began to honor the children’s innate intelligence and tune in to how they were instructing me to instruct them, we began to co-create our classes. We used the yoga asanas as a springboard for exploration of many other areas—animal adaptations and behavior, music and playing instruments, storytelling, drawing—and our time together became a truly interdisciplinary approach to learning. Together we wove stories with our bodies and minds in a flow that could only happen in child’s play.

The kids began to call me Mrs. Yoga, and I called them Yoga Kids. We continued to work and play together until our creations bloomed into a program called YogaKids. The program combines yogic techniques designed especially for children using Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner, an author and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes eight intelligences innate in all of us—linguistic, logical, visual, musical, kinesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal—and emphasizes that children should be given the opportunity to develop and embody as many of these as possible.

In keeping with this theory, YogaKids integrates storytelling, games, music, language, and other arts into a complete curriculum that engages the “whole child.” We employ ecology, anatomy, nutrition, and life lessons that echo yogic principles of interdependence, oneness, and fun. Most of all, our program engages the entire mind, body, and spirit in a way that honors all the ways children learn.

Taking the Practice Home

If you’re planning to teach yoga to kids, there are a few general things to know that will enhance your experience. The greatest challenge with children is to hold their attention long enough to teach them the benefits of yoga: stillness, balance, flexibility, focus, peace, grace, connection, health, and well-being. Luckily, most children love to talk, and they love to move—both of which can happen in yoga. Children will jump at the chance to assume the role of animals, trees, flowers, warriors. Your role is to step back and allow them to bark in the dog pose, hiss in the cobra, and meow in cat stretch. They can also recite the ABCs or 123s as they are holding poses. Sound is a great release for children and adds an auditory dimension to the physical experience of yoga.

Children need to discover the world on their own. Telling them to think harder, do it better, or be a certain way because it’s good for them is not the optimal way. Instead, provide a loving, responsive, creative environment for them to uncover their own truths. As they perform the various animal and nature asanas, engage their minds to deepen their awareness. When they’re snakes (Bhujangasana), invite them to really imagine that they’re just a long spine with no arms and legs. Could you still run or climb a tree? In Tree Pose (Vrksasana), ask them to imagine being a giant oak, with roots growing out of the bottoms of their feet. Could you stay in the same position for 100 years? If you were to be chopped down, would that be OK? Would it hurt?

When they stretch like a dog, balance like a flamingo, breathe like a bunny, or stand strong and tall like a tree, they are making a connection between the macrocosm of their environment and the microcosm of their bodies. The importance of reverence for all life and the principle of interdependence becomes apparent. Children begin to understand that we are all made of the same “stuff.” We’re just in different forms.

Think of yourself as a facilitator rather than a teacher. Guide your children while simultaneously opening your heart and letting them guide you. They’ll no doubt invite you into a boundless world of wonder and exploration. If you choose to join them, the teaching/learning process will be continually reciprocal and provide an opportunity for everyone to create, express themselves, and grow together.