Yoga for kids
Kids thrive on regular yoga practice. Adults who enjoy yoga can reel off a long list of its physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits and Children receive these same advantages when yoga classes are inspirational, playful, and aligned with their developmental needs.
If you observe a kids’ yoga class, you’ll see a special type of yoga practised in a social and fun-loving way. Classes include stories and games, with children verbalising their mental chatter as they feel into the expression of each pose. Children learn from each other’s challenges and while classes are active and relaxing, the kids work with endurance, balance, stamina and energy in a nurturing, holistic way. Although meditation is not appropriate for very young people, calming relaxations are. At all times, the teacher works to engage the students, providing variety and fun while ensuring their safety.
Why do kids need yoga?
The health of Australian and New Zealand children could be much improved. Sedentary indoor lifestyles with passive television viewing habits, behavioural problems, attention deficit disorders, anxiety, lowered immunity, over-consumption of empty calories and rising rates of childhood obesity are all big concerns for many families.
Concerns about the effects of childhood obesity and poor health are leading many to question whether this generation will be the first to see their parents outlive them.
Benefits of kids’ yoga
Kids’ yoga classes incorporate poses and sequences that move the spine in all directions and refresh the nervous system. Yoga strengthens the foundations of movement, legs and feet and gets into every muscle, cell and organ to massage and flush it with freshly oxygenated blood. Children benefit from balanced energy, reduced stress and an overall feeling of improved wellbeing. They learn to move their bodies with awareness in a non-competitive way, respecting physical limitations to avoid injury. Kids learn to listen to their bodies and eventually build strength, stamina and flexibility.
Kids’ yoga can be especially helpful for children who have medical conditions, injuries or structural problems. For example, special practices can address obesity, asthma and anxiety.
Yoga for conditions of childhood
Childhood obesity, of great concern at the moment, and can lead to type 2 diabetes and can be socially and emotionally crippling. Kids’ yoga increases self-esteem and helps heal the emotional reasons behind overeating. Through yoga’s body awareness training, children begin to notice the impact that food and life events have on their bodies and minds. Kids’ yoga is nurturing and compassionate, allowing children to build their stamina safely, balance the hormones and begin to release excess weight.
Asthma yoga sequences benefit all children, opening up their lungs and breathing so their cells receive oxygen and they become calm as a result. Additionally, the asthmatic child can have a prescribed home practice designed to further improve their condition in the long-term. Dr Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian scientist, asserts that asthma can be caused by over-breathing or hyperventilation. Yoga first makes students aware of how they breathe before they practise simple techniques. This breath awareness has helped many asthmatic children better understand their condition. Yoga balances the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, decreasing the “flight or fight” response, opening the airways and increasing airflow.
Anxiety and depression
Yoga helps children improve their self-worth and self-identity, feel gratitude and love, and free themselves from negative emotions. Children who practise yoga regularly embrace life more fully as they breathe better, feel stronger and become more capable, nurtured and relaxed. Anxiety lessens as children experience the art of relaxation and restful practices for the body and mind. By equipping children who suffer from anxiety or depression with the vital skills of observing their emotions and turning negative thinking around, yoga can calm the mind and lift the spirit. In the moments of quiet during a kids’ yoga class, the sense of the mind becoming still is almost palpable. This is when transformation begins.
Learning and development, balance, coordination and attention
Regular yoga practice dramatically improves overall learning and helps with behavioural difficulties and the frustrations associated with learning delays. Yoga’s balancing postures work the vestibular (balance) system in the body. Poses that cross the midlines of the body integrate the two hemispheres of the brain. Through harmonising the body’s imbalances, children focus better on tasks such as schoolwork. For example, kids with short attention spans have difficulty sitting still, yet through practising standing balancing poses they become better at refocusing on the task at hand.
Scientist Carla Hannaford and neuro-developmental educationalist Sally Goddard Blythe have demonstrated that learning is a whole body experience. They have proven that learning delays often occur through an under-used vestibular system, and children with learning disorders often have balance and coordination issues. Once balance, coordination and reflexes have improved, the mental clarity needed for learning follows. This explains why some children swing on their chairs in the classroom — they are not being “naughty” but exercising their vestibular system to help process new learning. Yoga provides more effective tools for these children.
Improving low muscle tone
Children with low muscle tone often have difficulty being a part of sporting or physical activities and tire easily. This affects their self-esteem as they have problems mastering activities that other children do easily. Yoga is very effective in building muscle tone. By working both sides of the body separately, the child builds up the side that is challenged, giving them greater physical confidence. A yoga class is where children can participate well and significantly improve their condition. It takes practice but when they look back after a year of regular classes, the children and parents are amazed at how far they have come in their balance, strength and endurance.
Yoga uses an intimate understanding of the human body and structural alignment to correct postural imbalances. This is a huge benefit to the growing child. Correct posture allows proper blood flow through the spinal cord so that nerves function properly and the body grows optimally as neurotransmitters reach their destinations. Postural alignment through yoga poses also heals habitual emotional tendencies on a physical level. Once a child stands in alignment and thus begins to live that way, a more positive outlook on life naturally follows. Children broaden their chests, release their shoulders, open and soften their heart and lung areas. This allows them to open up to life’s experiences.
Through yoga practice children relearn how to stand on their own two feet with confidence, self-assurance and humility. In class they practise taking postural alignment “off the mat” so they learn how to correctly carry heavy objects such as their school bags, protecting their spine for years to come.
Yoga builds immunity as it de-stresses the mind and body, strengthening all systems of the body. The teacher regularly draws on “cold and flu” sequences, particularly in winter, to help children avoid or recover quickly from these conditions. The sequences generally include poses where the head is down to help drain the sinuses, and backward-bending postures to facilitate opening the back of the lungs.
Correct breathing is a vital part of long-term health and happiness. In a kids’ yoga class the children are often reminded to breathe. When they are taught from a young age to breathe through difficulties or challenges on a physical level, it leads to better coping strategies in life. Breathing through the nostrils warms the body from the inside. Yoga breathing teaches children how to naturally breathe into their bellies, properly utilising their lung capacity while correcting shallow and reverse breathing. The healing power of the breath oxygenates the body’s cells effectively.
Yoga stretching, balancing and body awareness help prevent injury on and off the mat. Students also learn to identify healthy stretching. When children first come to yoga they are often reluctant to challenge themselves physically, particularly boys who often lose flexibility around age eight. Yoga helps children gain suppleness and as they develop strength, flexibility and balance, they are more able to care for their bodies and avoid sporting injuries. Greater body awareness in the moment also means they are less likely to fall and injure themselves in daily life.
Of course, while kids’ yoga is of great benefit to children with any of the above conditions, at its heart it’s a wonderful way for all children to have fun, feel good in themselves and open up more to life.
Kids and yoga
A typical primary-school-aged class begins with children tuning inward without judgment. They notice how their body is feeling, the state of their mind, and what their breath is doing. This tuning in builds body awareness and creates a positive habit. They then warm up the muscles and link the breath with movement. Kids’ yoga classes often include lots of jumping poses and physical challenges that are appropriate for each child’s individual situation in a non-competitive and calming way.
In the younger age groups the poses are performed through yoga stories played out via the physical body. Yoga philosophy is effortlessly built into these stories as well as connections with the inner and outer world. Older primary-school-aged students practise active, dynamically moving flowing sequences and holding balances. A properly sequenced class works all ranges of motion, flushing the bodily systems, strengthening the muscles and bones and stretching the body. Working with the breath, children feel relaxed while having fun. They play non-competitive yoga games before winding down for their relaxation and creative visualisation time. The children come together at the end for a sharing circle of gratitude. They leave feeling calmer, confident, nurtured and more balanced.
Children tend to practise their yoga with inner discipline when the teacher is reverent. The lying down relaxation at the end of the class provides a restorative, nurturing and quiet space to practise stilling or calming the mind. It also integrates all the stretching and strengthening in the body and releases the lactic acid buildup from the physical poses. For children to enjoy their relaxation time, they first need a physically active asana practice that makes them want to lie down and rest afterwards, and a guided visualisation to focus their minds. The beginner child will often fidget during relaxation time, but with regular practice all children look forward to this sacred time. Visualisations help release tension and negativity, replacing them with love and peace.
Through exploring many postures named after animals or other items from nature, yoga allows children to reconnect with the natural world. It encourages awareness of how the seasons affect our mind, bodies and spirit, glimpsing the oneness of all.
Yoga and the seasons
Yoga helps children celebrate the changing seasons and learn which practices they need at different times. For example, on a hot day the cooling practices of putting legs up against the wall and forward bending postures are done, while on cooler days the warming practices of jumping and backward bending poses are focused on.
Children learn to use yoga to help them with whatever ailments they have. For instance, they can learn to relieve a sore back by modifying poses and their daily activities. Regular yoga gives the primary-school-aged child a repertoire of self-healing practices. Learning to self-manage is enormously empowering in a child’s life.
Emotional and social benefits of yogic philosophy for kids
A child’s yoga class is very social, providing opportunities for deeper connections with others. By formally practising appreciation and expressing gratitude within the class, kids’ yoga helps children feel good about themselves and their world. This can be an important step in preventing them from being bullied — or becoming the bully.
Yoga originated 5000 years ago within an ancient culture steeped in profound wisdom and ethical living. Sanskrit, the language of yoga, is used for the names of the postures and all yogic practices. It’s said that when Sanskrit is spoken it has an energetic healing effect on the body. Familiarising the students with Sanskrit words and their English equivalent teaches an appreciation for other cultures and links students to the heritage of yoga. Children understand they are doing more than just exercises; they are experiencing the energy that “lives” in all beings through a timeless healing system which aims to unite humans with spirit.
Opening to spirit
The non-denominational yoga philosophy is a spiritual practice which can exist alongside any religious beliefs. It is based on discipline, correct treatment of self and others, and inner peace. Computers, televisions, iPad apps and the like become irrelevant as the child discovers the joy of being in the moment, feeling fully alive and in their body. This does tremendous things for creativity and a positive outlook on life. Yoga becomes an antidote to the over-use of technology. Children begin to exercise their imagination “muscles” and with yoga philosophy grounding their practices, they open up to spirit on a deep level.
In the classic, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written approximately 4000 years ago, the sage Patanjali talks about the yamas and niyamas, or ethical precepts of yoga. In kids’ yoga classes these ideals for ethical living are taught through example, anecdotes or story while postures are practised, and through issues children raise in class about what is happening in their lives.
The yamas: Social disciplines
The yamas comprise five social disciplines: non-violence or non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, impulse-control and non-possessiveness. Non-violence or non-harming extends to treating others with compassion and love and includes all beings. The other four yamas follow on from non-harming, for instance to speak the truth as much possible without harming others. The yama relating to non-possessiveness helps provide children with a healthy alternative to the over-consumerism that is heavily aimed at them. A regular gratitude practice helps relieve children from comparing themselves to their friends, and instead shifts their focus to accepting themselves and finding the good that abounds in life.
Yoga and the yogic principles leave a child feeling fulfilled and content with their unique life journey. Yogic values guide children to compassionately work towards life’s challenges. Once connections with the teacher and group are well established, children often bring life challenges to the sharing circle. When the teacher responds to those issues with the life-affirming, harmonious guidelines of the yamas and niyamas, children effortlessly absorb the positivity and love from this approach.
The niyamas: Self-care
The niyamas comprise five principles of self-care: purifying the body and mind, cultivating an attitude of contentment, training the senses, self-study, and letting go into your spiritual source. These are explored in a kids’ yoga class when the children are ready, within the context of the yoga stories and happenings the children bring to class. They niyamas are presented positively and age-appropriately.
Compassion is modelled by teachers in the way they relate to the group and individual children. Working in a nurturing way with an injured or ill child, or simply not pushing an overtired child but providing restorative poses to help with fatigue when needed, makes the child feel respected and cared for. The children feel valued, with increased self-esteem, and thus simple yoga practices have a profound healing effect on the child’s soul.
Ending the class with the simple yogic practice of honouring self and others through the traditional “namaste” gesture shows children that they matter. Its meaning resonates deeply within them: there is a light inside me that honours, celebrates and thanks the same light inside you.
Yoga also teaches tremendous patience with self and others as the children learn that achieving more advanced poses comes through effort and patience. They develop compassion for a peer who is having difficulty with something and learn to support others. Children are encouraged to practise positive self-talk when a pose is hard for them, learning contentment and to work considerately in a group. Yoga deepens their life experience and they begin to be guided by its principles and feel the positive effects it brings.
Children enjoy a range of benefits from regular yoga practice including:
- An opportunity to celebrate health
- Learning self-awareness, identifying mental chatter and releasing it without judgment
- Inner and outer peace
- Positive impact on their relationships with others
- Skills to help deal with difficult situations and let difficult experiences go in order to heal, gain insights, and grow
- Integrating mind, body and spirit with universal truths and wisdom
- Connectedness with nature, animals and the earth
- Self-confidence and self-acceptance
A yoga sequence for children
Practise yoga on a relatively empty stomach. Find a space that is clean, neat and free of interruptions or distractions. Turn off the phone and have fun with this short yoga sequence designed to stretch, strengthen and balance your body and relax your mind.
Tadasana (mountain pose)
Stand with your big toes touching. Spread your toes, firm your thighs and lift the kneecaps, keeping the backs of the knees soft. Move your tummy up and back towards your spine. Lift up the spine and draw your shoulders down. Take a few moments here to notice how your body is feeling and how you are breathing. Bring your attention fully to your yoga practice, becoming present to the here and now. Breathe. Feel strong and steady like a mountain weathering all the storms of life. The mountain has the best view of rainbows and the rising sun in the morning sky.
Vrksasana (tree pose)
Standing in mountain pose, reach down with your right hand and pick up your right ankle. Place the sole of your right foot along the inner thigh of the left leg. Press the foot into the leg and the leg into the foot. Stare at a spot in front of you on the floor. When you are balanced, bring your hands together above your head as shown. Breathe and hold the pose for 10 counts if you can. Imagine you have strong roots into the earth keeping you grounded and less likely to fall. What kind of tree can you be? Feel steady, strong and balanced, giving life to living beings. Repeat the pose with the other leg.
Marjaryasana (cat pose)
Come into all fours position like a cat, wrists directly under shoulders, knees directly under hips. Fingers facing forward and evenly spread. Move your shoulders away from your ears and look out. Lift your tummy and chest up to your back and breathe slow, steady breaths through your nose. Play in the pose! Breathe in and dip your spine and look out, breathe out as you round your back and look down. Move your hips from side to side and in circles one way, then the other as you breathe and warm up the spine.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog pose)
Breathe out, turn your toes to standing on the soles, lift your knees off the floor, straightening your legs as you push into your fingers to move your shoulders away from your ears. Lift your buttocks high up to the sky, looking down towards your knees. Make an upside-down V shape with your body. Breathe. Work the heels towards the floor. Keep your tummy and chest moving back towards your spine. Play! Wag your doggy tail, lift one leg if you like as dogs do, then the other. Let this pose energise your entire body. Woof. Make cat and dog poses dynamically flow by breathing into cat pose and looking up, then breathing out and into downward-facing dog pose for three slow rounds, finishing in cat pose.
Baddha Konasana (butterfly pose)
Sitting on the floor, bring the soles of your feet together and close to the front of your body. Let your knees float out to the sides towards the floor. Lift the spine up and draw your shoulders down. Holding your big toes or your ankles, flutter your butterfly wings (your bent legs) as you lift your spine. Feel light, as if you are a butterfly fluttering in a gentle breeze and dappled sunlight. Breathe in lightness and feel the pose opening your hips and strengthening your internal organs.
Setu Bandha (bridge pose)
Lying down, bend your knees and bring your feet closer towards your buttocks, feet in line with the sitting bones. Breathe in through the nose and gently lift the buttocks off the floor. Hold the pose and breathe. Slowly roll the spine back onto the floor as you complete the out-breath. Imagine you are a sturdy bridge opening and closing to let big ships through. This calming pose stretches the chest and spine, helps with anxiety, improves digestion and is therapeutic for asthma.
Jathara Parivartanasana (lying down twist)
Lying down, bring your arms out to shoulder height, resting on the floor. Bend your knees up and press your feet into the floor as you move your hips to the right. Lift your knees towards your chest and let them gently fall to your left side. Look towards the right as shown. Hold the pose for a few breaths, relaxing into the pose. Feel into the twist as it massages your internal organs, refreshes the spine and stretches the shoulders. Bring the legs back to centre and repeat on the other side.
Savasana (relaxation pose)
Lying down with the palms of your hands turned up towards the sky, let your legs fall out to the sides. Close your eyes and relax your body and mind. Soften your body, letting go of tension. Breathe love into your heart centre and into your entire body. Feel relaxed, loving and at peace.
Bhramari breathing (humming bee breath)
Sitting with one ankle in front of the other, lift the spine. Place your thumbs lightly over your ear canal to gently close off the ears while your fingers rest lightly on your head. Close your eyes. Breathe in and make a low humming sound as you breathe in and out. Do this for at least three breaths, possibly more. You can practise this pose by itself anytime, especially at night if you are not tired enough to go to sleep. It will relax you and balance your nervous system.
Take a moment before moving on to honour the practice of yoga and thank anyone else who might be practising with you.
Kylie Terraluna is a writer and yoga teacher on the path of vedic wisdom. She travels Australia, teaching WellBeing’s yoga workshops on love and happiness. Join her for a beautiful weekend of transformation. For more information, visit kylieterraluna.com.au.
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