Yoga for children
“Mummy, I’m hungry. I need to go to the toilet. Can I watch TV?” Children will use any and every excuse to put off bedtime, but how often do you hear, “Mummy, can I do my yoga first?” For most parents, getting their children to bed takes time, effort and endless patience, something we often don’t have at the end of the day.
As a yoga teacher and a mother, I’m often asked how parents can teach their child to be calm and centred when bedtime rolls around. The problem is, when we ask our children to be settled, they often do the opposite. However, experience and research have shown me that yoga offers one solution to the bedtime dilemma.
My four-year-old daughter has picked up on my love of yoga and often uses this as an excuse to not go to bed, asking if she can do a few poses instead, which I use as an opportunity to take her on a journey that will lead her to bed and, ultimately, into a restful sleep.
Introducing your children to yoga
Research presented at the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) in 2007 indicated that children who practise yoga have more energy, are better at regulating their emotions and managing stress and have higher self-esteem. Incorporating yoga as part of the regular bedtime routine provides a framework that can help your child in other parts of their lives, too. For instance, when children practise yoga regularly, they learn how to bring themselves back from silly to calm, thus making the transition from daytime activity to evening peace an easy and enjoyable one.
Yoga teaches children how to relax their minds and bodies in a simple and fun way. The characters, visualisations and stories used in children’s yoga show strength, courage and acts of love, generosity, peace and happiness. These are innate positive qualities that we all strive to bring to our lives.
If you find your child is quite awake when they should be heading off to bed, practising a few yoga poses with them will help lower their energy levels and give you both the opportunity to relax together, helping to make bedtime a beautiful, bonding experience.
Yoga can provide you with a variety of tools to help settle your child’s energy levels. What you end up using depends on your child and also on the kind of day they have had. So the first thing to do is meet your child where they are at. If they’re running around all silly and happy and laughing, the last thing you should do is make them lie down straight away. It’s just too far from where they are. You can spend a lot of time and waste a lot of energy trying to force them into a position they’re really not ready for. If they’re running around, you may want to try something that connects with their energy.
The manner in which you interact with your child is very important. Try not to be reactive. Children can sense when adults are becoming frustrated, so it’s important to be calm and patient. Yoga can teach both of you this. Patient and persistent adults help a child to build their self-esteem and confidence. When you see your child behaving well and appropriately, give them positive feedback. Always remember to be sensitive to their needs and creative with your solutions.
Effects of yoga on children
When yoga is taught from an early age it becomes a part of your child’s lifestyle. The benefits of a regular yoga practice are endless, so why not share them with your children? I have mentioned below certain yoga techniques you can do as part of your child’s bedtime routine. Yoga promotes focus on breathing to relax them and help them get to sleep more easily. Children want balance as it gives them a framework so they can blossom and the tools to come up with their own ways of solving problems.
“Yoga is good for children for all the reasons it is good for adults,” says Briellen Kalamir, owner and director of Spirit Rising Yoga in Brisbane. Briellen, who is also a facilitator of the Radiant Children’s Yoga Programme, says, “Just bring the yoga back to the basics and let the children get to know the calmness they have within them. This helps them stay focused and centred in their daily lives no matter what age. But remember, children’s yoga is nothing like yoga for adults. Poses are based on traditional ones, so they are child-friendly and fun. Remember to always come back to the breath after each exercise.”
Around the age of three, children start to long for the clarity of the outside world — outside themselves and also outside of the home. Children want to explore the world even if only in thoughts and stories. This is where storytelling is a wonderful tool in yoga, particularly stories that are uplifting, adventurous, challenging and have values that guide and inspire.
One of the really important things about bringing yoga to children is giving yourself the freedom to adapt it to what’s happening to them. A wonderful resource is Shakta Kaur Khalsa’s book Fly like a Butterfly. The book has some great stories in it and there is no reason why you can’t subtly adjust them to include your child, their name and things that are happening in their life. This helps to make it relevant and meaningful to them but also helps them to take what they are experiencing in their yoga class out into their life.
A classic pose for becoming restful is a forward bend, but its best to start with poses they like to do. If they are very active, start with something that’s moving, like spinal flexes, then move on to cat-cow with noises, followed by child pose then being as quiet as a mouse. That’s a nice way to slow it down so they are ready for sleep.
Yoga has been a gift, not just for my daughter but for all our family. My daughter and I now take turns teaching yoga to each other. This creates mutual respect and a co-creative environment. Remember, life is fun and joyful. Tell them how magnificent they are.
3- to 7-year-olds
At this age, their imagination runs wild, so when things get a bit too exciting, calm them down with focus. In this age group they can sit and focus inward for a few minutes quite easily and they have very good spinal flexibility, but less muscle strength, especially in their arm and torso strength.
My daughter Giselle and her friend Paige love to pretend they are animals. Paige likes to pretend she is a butterfly and does beautiful movements with her body. Fly Like a Butterfly, a song from the Radiant Child Yoga Program, is a great accompaniment for Paige to start her butterfly journey. The butterfly, or dragonfly for a boy, can go on an adventure anywhere your child likes with your guidance. (If your child is reluctant to go to their bedroom, bring the yoga to them. So if they are in the living room, start there.)
One evening, Paige, who is six, flew all the way to France for her bedtime yoga adventure (butterfly poses and song). She landed on a tree and had a look at the beautiful, picturesque country side (tree pose) and saw a field full of bright yellow sunflowers. She loved how the flowers opened up when the sun shone on them (sunflower pose).
The sun was setting, so Paige decided to fly home (butterfly flutter wings), so she stretched her butterfly wings ready for the long journey ahead (butterfly stretch). When she arrived, Paige put her hands together in front of her heart and took three deep breaths, in and out, thinking about the wonderful adventure she had just been on.
Paige then wished all her family and friends good night as she blew them butterfly kisses (seated wish or butterfly kisses). Paige was then ready for bed and some sweet dreams.
Giselle, who is four, loves to be a lion and go on exciting animal adventures before bed. She kneels down and roars out loud like a lion, going from the living room into her bedroom. There, she will start to do gentler animal poses, like cow and cat, eventually curling up like a little mouse in bed.
Music and song
Briellen recommends songs, especially if your child is very responsive to them. The songs can use arm movements that tap into the child’s exuberance while calming them at the same time.
Eensy Weensy Spider is a great song for kids. Most young children know the original version, so it’s fine to start with that one and then introduce them to the exciting new way of singing it. This song gives children the opportunity to express their joy and wonder at life as well as teaching them that meditation can enhance their feelings and awareness.
The adapted version by Shakta Kaur Khalsa goes like this:
Eensy Weensy Spider crawls up the waterspout
To ask all the Universe, what is life about?
The stars in the sky said that life is great!
So Eensy weensy spider went home to meditate.
Start by sitting down with your legs crossed (this is the preferred starting position but if your child wants to do it standing up, let them and then suggest doing it sitting down as well). Make it interesting and fun. When you get to the last line of the song, get the child to bring their hands together in front of their heart.
The beauty of practising yoga with your child is that all you need is the two of you. You can introduce some changes into your routines by bringing a bit of trivia into the poses — for example, doing yoga poses with your feet can be a lesson in anatomy. Ask them if they know there are 350 bones, joints and ligaments that make up their feet. During tree pose, you could talk about trees and how they are our breathing buddies.
Remember that yoga is non-competitive. The only competition involved should be with their own past performances, like holding a yoga pose for five seconds, then next time trying to hold it for 10 seconds.
When you practise breathing with your children, or any other relaxation or tuning-in techniques, you can use the word om, or peace. Breathe in and on the out-breath say “peace” and send your family and friends beautiful thoughts.
Abdominal breathing is very important — always bring your yoga journey back to the breathing. This can help them to learn their breath is a tool that may help them through a difficult experience and to find a place inside themselves where all is well.
Kids are very spontaneous and interactive about the process. They have wonderful ideas about how to do things their way. Your job is to guide their enthusiasm so they are safe and can learn. As a parent, you can help them to see there is more than one way of doing things and that through yoga we can explore the interconnectedness of mind, body and sprit.
Many people believe the world is a complicated place, particularly for young children. Yoga teaches them (and us) to stop, breathe, look around and love. It gives your child a method of coping that keeps them centred and at one with the world around them and those who live in it. To be respected and loved is something that can only be given and offered. Yoga will get your child closer to giving and receiving both. And isn’t that really all we parents want for our kids?
Rebecca Atlas specialises in teaching children and adolescent yoga and is a life coach, fashion stylist, swimming coach and freelance writer. T: 0447 485 672, E: firstname.lastname@example.org
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