Yoga for Children

February 6, 2016

To recognize the high level of stress that modern life has placed on our children, we need only a few moments to observe the world through the eyes of our young: hurried pace of life due to parents’ schedules and expectations, the over bombardment of information and stimulation through media and various electronic devices, the pressures of excelling academically, fitting in socially, competing with fellow peers, dealing with body image issues, less time invested in physical activity, incessant lessons, and even the threat of bullying within the schools; all of the aforementioned activities and concerns cause much stress and strain on our children’s body and mind. Most kids are over-stimulated and have very little breathing space to just be kids.  We need to offer them a technique to help them relax and reflect so that they may navigate life’s challenges with greater ease and clarity.  Yoga is a viable tool in returning participants to wholeness and optimal health.

I was fortunate enough to study with Dr. Shanker, a distinguished professor at York University.  Shanker is currently the Director of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative at York University and is working with various professionals, groups and government organizations to bring about policy change in order to better support our children in their development.  Dr. Shanker’s main emphasis is that in order to enhance the potential in children, we must help them to find effective ways to self-regulate.  Children are not born with the skills to be able to self-regulate, therefore it becomes our main job as caregivers to teach them this valuable skill. The understanding is that in order to encourage healthy and optimal development, children need to be able to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) rather than the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). “The better a child can stay calmly focused and alert, the better he integrates the diverse information coming in from his different senses, assimilates it, and sequences his thoughts and actions,” Professor Shanker explained.  Yoga has been proven an excellent vehicle in helping children to self-regulate.

By meeting the kids where they are and acknowledging their feelings and emotions, the children will then feel validated and will begin to listen to and trust their bodies, thereby improving self-management. In a study by Leipzig University in 2003, it was reported that yoga reduces feelings of helplessness and aggression, and in the long-term helps to achieve emotional balance. The benefits of yoga are particularly strong among children with special needs, research shows.

Research has shown that yoga not only helps with mood and behavior but also helps kids improve in areas of learning and academia. Along with a research team, in 2000, cardiologist Dr. Benson studied the relationship between exposure to a relaxation-response curriculum and academic achievement among middle school students.  The students who had more than two semesters’ worth of exposure to the relaxation curriculum earned higher marks in GPA, work habits and cooperation, than students who did not; they maintained this improvement for at least two years.  It appears that yoga helps children better focus and concentrate on their schoolwork and the increase in self-esteem gives them a ‘can do’ attitude toward academics.  Another benefit of children and yoga training is that it teaches them early how to deal with stress in a positive, constructive way.

The Accelerated School (TAS) in South Central Los Angeles has also reaped the benefits of yoga.  Co-founder Kevin Sved believes that, “Unless you’re fully engaging the minds and bodies of the children, they’re not going to be as productive.”  The results of the TAS approach illustrate this clearly.  Between 1997 and 2001, TAS saw an amazing increase of 93% in Stanford Achievement Test Scores.  Attendance averages 94%, which is very high in the LA Unified School District.  In May 2001, it was recognized by Time as Elementary School of the Year.

A 2003 study conducted by California State University, Los Angeles highlights some of the benefits of yoga offered within schools:  improved students’ behaviour, physical health and academic performance, as well as attitudes toward themselves.
The practice of yoga is based around movement and breath. I’ve listed below a few simple yoga techniques that caregivers and teachers can guide kids through throughout the day in order to offer ways to self-regulate. Helping the kids find a place of calm will enable them to become more alert, attentive and receptive to learning and processing information.

If a child is displaying inattentive behaviour, s/he can try the following exercises:

  1. Choo Choo Breath: Pretending to be a train, they can raise their fists up in the air. As the child begins to march around they exhale deeply through the nose as they fist the air while alternating raising their arms.  Physical movement is very important as it takes physical action to create a neural pathway.
  2. Bumble Bee Breath: This is another breathing technique that could be done while sitting. Inhale through the nose, exhale with ‘zzzz’; this technique helps to stimulate the nervous system.

If the child is hyperactive, here are three easy ways that caregivers can guide him/her to regulate:

  1. Lion’s Breath: Inhale deeply through the nose and with mouth open wide, tongue sticking out make an ‘AAHHH!’ sound as they exhale through the mouth.  This exercise helps to get their awareness back into their body.
  2. Forward Fold: Have the children stand and bend forward with their torso, hinging at the hips, into a forward fold for about a minute. Having the head rest below the heart allows the nervous system to settle.
  3. Belly Breathing: While sitting at their desks, the teacher can ask the students to have their palms face up, resting one hand into the other upon their laps. With their eyes closed the kids can be guided to envision that they’re holding a soft kitten in their hands.  Their attention can then be drawn to the belly as they watch their breath there for a few minutes.

Yoga helps to increase physical strength and flexibility, improves focus while it invokes mental clarity, and cultivates a sense of peace and inner calm.  Living in today’s fast-paced society with many expectations and much external pressures, I feel it is vitally important to offer our children practical tools and techniques that they can access at any time to help them not only cope but also to assist them so that they may thrive physically, mentally and emotionally. It is my mission to help caregivers and educators to do just that.