People ask me how many yoga classes are necessary before benefits are experienced. Rarely, do they believe me when I answer: “One.” Positive effects of a good yoga class are felt during and after that very first class. There is a style of yoga for everyone – truly! Check out a few possibilities:
- Power yoga and Ashtanga flow classes for those who need to move
- Integral yoga and Viniyoga for more classical focus, with a combination of movement, breathing and rest
- Big Yoga and Curvy Yoga for those who feel that their body types do not align with typical yoga clothing ads
- Yin yoga with emphasis on holding supported poses to allow for deep work within connective tissue
- Restorative yoga for anyone who would enjoy being propped in poses with pillows and blankets (very nurturing and healing)
- Meditation classes
- And even yoga classes for deep relaxation.
There are programs that provide yoga to people in corporate office settings, the military, in prisons, to those who have cardiac issues or diabetes, and even classes such as Chair yoga and Laugh-A-Yoga. See? Yoga is for all ages, all health conditions and all body types. There are Pre-Natal yoga classes, so why shouldn’t there be yoga for children? Children are people too!
Yoga for the Special Child was the first teacher training course that I attended, with emphasis on connection with each and every child, allowing each child to find their own inner strengths and their own inner calm. That IS the goal of yoga – to connect with that inner joy that resides in all of us. Children are still in that joyous, playful state. Yoga is perfect for children. Sonia Sumar wrote to parents in the forward of her book, Yoga for the Special Child: “By letting go of our fears and negativity, and learning to see the best in ourselves and others, we can provide a powerful impetus for positive change. It is through this ability to go beyond pre-conceived notions and external appearances that we can transform our lives and those of our children.”
Yoga is a science that provides each person with ways to experience strength in the body and in the mind, with inner peace and resilience, considered the birthright of everyone. The pretzel-like poses that most people associate with yoga do exist, but are not the primary focus of most classical yoga traditions. Children’s yoga can incorporate moving, singing, jumping, laughing, story-telling, games, art activities and rest time. Kids are allowed to experience fun and joy in yoga classes, and to learn that those great feelings come from within.
Children today live in a world where vast amounts of information bombard their vision, hearing and social observations every day and all day. Currently, children are often taught to rely on this external information, to believe that what is seen on TV, videogames and in social media is what is real and what is important. So much comes to children and adults from electronic devices and yet, a big buzz phrase in schools and therapy sessions right now is self-regulation. All of that external noise distracts us from accessing our own inner strengths and resources. Doesn’t every parent, teacher and therapist want each child to recognize their own, inner power, their own inner calm?
Yoga practices emphasize movement, breathing, singing and rest. Resting is a vital ingredient, as rest allows the body to assimilate all the good things that have been introduced during the yoga session. We spend so much time instructing children and so much time on the road for appointments and outings, it’s easy to forget that children also need to learn the significant importance of quiet time, of silence, and of rest in between all that activity. Children need to become acquainted with their own true ability for self-regulation and self calming, and that it feels good to be calm and in control. If a child has no experience of that feeling, then how are they going to be able to find that calm when they need it? Anger and bullying could become go-to choices rather than ‘checking in’ to see what would help them to feel ‘just right’ in that moment. Many programs such as the ALERT program, Zones of Regulation and Social Thinking’s Superflex enable children to establish useful resources when they feel they are headed out of control. Yoga techniques can fit right in alongside those proven methods, and often, are integral components of such self-regulation tools.
Yoga, Bullying, and the Schools
Have you heard that some schools are now having wonderful decreases in bullying and disruptive behaviors in the classroom, along with increases in academic performance by altering their approach to problem behaviors? Instead of being sent to the principal’s office or to receive some form of negative reinforcement, the student goes to a quiet room where an adult guides them in mindfulness activities or yoga techniques. Positive outcomes can arise from positive, supportive approaches with students who act out in the classroom. Once the child experiences that feeling of calm self-control, they are more likely to know how to return to that state when needed. Improvements in sleep habits, food choices and activity level are often associated with regular participation in yoga and mindfulness practices.
- Yoga for children provides opportunities to stretch and strengthen muscles, to improve breath support, and to foster a calm, focused mind. Numerous research studies point out the benefits of yoga practices within schools and homes. And yes, yoga for children even has its own National Kids Yoga Conference every fall in DC, where leaders in children’s yoga from around the world meet to present latest trends and to foster continued growth in this valuable area of yoga practice.
- The Calming Kids Yoga website offers a beautiful video clip of a child describing how “checking in” helps her to find calm during her day.
- Yoga 4 Classrooms offers a list of research studies that detail numerous benefits of yoga and mindfulness practices for children and teens.
- Mindful Healthy Life is a resource for those living in the DC metropolitan area, offering a calendar of activities and information focusing on yoga and positive approaches to day-to-day life.
Resources abound for yoga for children. There are numerous books, videos and apps for yoga poses, breathing and meditation. Yoga has been around for thousands of years and in America, it is IN right now!
- Mountain Pose – the standing rest pose. Used in yoga classes as a break or intermediary pose during standing poses, I also like to call it the “ready” pose. Stand with feet solidly on the ground, spine upright, shoulders ‘back and down,’ arms relaxed at the sides of the body, ears aligned with shoulders, hips and feet, eyes directed forward. Notice the calm energy throughout the body. Outside of yoga class, this is a great pose for children and adults to use when standing in line at the grocery store. In this pose, you are a mountain. Your physical presence indicates readiness and calm strength.
- Tree – great for balance and focus. While standing, gently shift the weight onto one foot, feeling the stability throughout that supporting foot, ankle, knee and hip. Hold the eye gaze on a non-moving point/object directly in front of you. When ready, lift the other foot and place the sole of that foot on top of the standing foot or against the inner ankle or leg. Some prefer to place foot within the hip crease of the standing leg. Stand upright with hands at the hips, the heart, or raised above the head. If desired, you can steady the body by placing one fingertip on the wall. Hold for a few seconds and repeat on the other side.
- Table – Wake up the shoulders, wrists, hips and knees, and expand the chest to become a table. From a seated position on the floor with knees bent and feet in front, place the palms alongside the hips, fingers pointing toward feet, if comfortable (re-position hands if that’s not comfy!). Breathe in and press into the feet and hands while raising the hips and straightening the elbows, creating a nice flat surface in the belly and chest regions. Keep the neck in line with the torso, eyes gazing at the ceiling. Breathe a few comfortable breaths. Have someone place a toy or beanbag on the belly and hold steady, keeping the hips and shoulders in line and the heart open. Breathe out as you lower your seat toward the floor. Rest.
- Child’s Pose – Take a break from it all. Sit on the floor on the heels and gently fold the torso over the thighs, resting the top of the forehead on the floor or on a pillow, and allowing the arms to come alongside the legs/body, with the tops of the hands resting on the floor, behind the hips. Exhale and let gravity be your friend, sinking deeper into this resting pose. Turn off all the noise for a bit.
- Elephant Twist – In standing or sitting, with arms relaxed at the sides, take an inhale, then exhale and twist the torso toward the right, allowing the arms to flop out and around the body, like elephant’s ears. Inhale back to center, and exhale to the left, allowing the body to twist, the arms to flop toward the left and the face to look left. Inhale back to center and repeat a few more times, allowing the body to reap the benefits of this cleansing and energizing pose. If you’d like, add a happy song to match the movement.
- Lion – This is a mood-changer! Beware: it leads to laughter! Sit on the feet/heels on the floor, if comfortable, or in a chair, and stretch the fingers out away from you, with hands on the knees. Take a big breath in and then… exhale fully while making a roar and sticking out the tongue, stretching out the fingers (claws) and opening the eyes as widely as they can go! Sit back upright. Take a regular breath. Then repeat a time or two! Hold on to your smile.
- Do Nothing Doll – the rest pose when positioned on the floor in yoga classes and when in yoga nidra. This has been described as the most difficult yoga pose. Even though it involves lying on the back while on the floor, with eyes closed, many of us active people today find it difficult to remain still and to enjoy silence. Yoga cards made by Imaginazium call this pose Do Nothing Doll, as a doll has no thoughts! You can begin this practice simply by closing the eyes and enjoying the quiet. Taking this rest is re-energizing for the body and mind.
- Belly Breathing – Ah, taking a nice deep breath is calming and organizing – we all know that! Throughout the day our breathing tends to become shallow, tight and focused high in the chest. Many children keep their breathing in the upper chest region, which is associated with the fight or flight state of being, with stress and anxiety. Remember how we are told to take a deep breath and count to 10 when we are upset? Belly breathing allows us to take a full, deep breath that begins by relaxing the belly, letting it expand as we breathe in. This enables the diaphragm to move fully, allowing the lungs to fill more completely. Begin with a nice exhale. Take a full belly breath in and then, feel the belly pulling back in toward the spine on the full exhale. Try belly breathing for awhile. Then, try it with a count: 1-2-3 on the inhale and 1-2-3 on the exhale. For deeper relaxation, try 1-2-3 on the inhale and 1-2-3-4-5-6 on the long, slow, complete exhale.
OK! Having fun with yoga?
Kids Gotta Move!
Children want to explore the fullness of their muscle power, their thinking skills and their creativity. Yoga for children makes sense and it works – whether the child prefers solitary, parallel, or cooperative play. Yoga requires no extra equipment and minimal space. Occupational therapists and speech therapists understand that children perform best when they are motivated and engaged in an activity, and also, that novelty encourages attention and learning. Yoga techniques offer fresh and varied opportunities for such novelty and enticement, while providing a solid foundation for each child’s motor control skill development, self-regulation and social connectedness. As a former occupational therapist, I have always found that the yoga practices of movement, breathing and song form a perfect fit with OT goals geared toward purposeful living and quality of life. I believe that if every child practices yoga, their generation and the generations that follow will experience a great deal more peace and positivity than we now know in the world…and yoga for children is growing and growing…such a dream may become reality!
– Gina Kane, MSOT, CYT
Gina worked as a pediatric occupational therapist from 1983 to 2015, most of those years serving as the OT Director at Skill Builders. Her love for yoga began in 1995, with numerous yoga teacher trainings to follow, including: Yoga for the Special Child, Integral Yoga (Levels I and II), Calming Kids Yoga and certification in Structural Yoga Therapy. In 2016, Gina and Dee Marie of Calming Kids Yoga, co-authored a pocket-sized booklet, Finding Calm in a Moment. Her passion for children’s yoga includes a strong belief in the importance of breathing and mindful meditation practices, as all children deserve to know that they can find their own contentment and peace.