Yoga is an ever-increasing popular activity choice for adults to help reduce stress levels. But what about our children? They also feel the pressures of our fast-paced world and increasing expectation of what they need to achieve. Children can be subjected to complex social hierarchies and cyber bullying, NAPLAN tests, transitions into new schools, diets filled with additives or diets that make them feel ‘different’. Many children are also affected by the heartbreak of divorce. No wonder we are facing an epidemic of childhood obesity and a generation of highly strung kids.
So, does yoga help reduce stress levels in kids too? Yes!
Yoga for children offers the same benefits as it does for adults, and it is considered a holistic form of exercise because it offers benefits in the development of the whole child: physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual.
It is easy to get excited about the incredible benefits yoga offers for the development of the whole child, but before you ask your child to turn into a pretzel shape or expect them to be ‘Zen’ when you sit in a cafe with a friend, there are some important things to consider.
Think about what you want your child to get out of their yoga practice. Different yoga teachers will focus on different aspects of the practice. Some classes are super fun and engaging, filled with storytelling, games and imaginative play, while others spend more time in stillness and quiet. Check with the teacher first to know whether their class will suit your child to give them maximum benefit.
Young children are natural yogis. They live in the present moment and their bodies are flexible and move easily into most yoga poses.
Growing bodies need some slight adaptations to the practice, so it’s not safe for parents who practise yoga to simply teach their child what they do in their adult yoga class. Older children need more specific alignment cues to keep their joints safe. They will be at an age where they want to explore more adventurous poses like headstand and arm balances. It is important that these more risky poses are taught to them by a certified children’s yoga teacher.
Facilitate a space at home for their natural yoga practice to develop. Roll out a yoga mat, put on some calm music, do some sun salutes and meditation next to them and let them follow you. Young children also love to follow DVDs and copy the pictures on flash cards.
The most important part of yoga that you can share with your child at home is the yoga breath.
Having your child join a yoga class taught by a qualified children’s yoga teacher means that they will learn the correct techniques for the yoga breath – the secret to what makes yoga a calming practice.
A lot of children ‘reverse breathe’ where their belly recedes on the inhale. A yoga teacher will be able to help correct this breathing style and teach children to calm down using their breath.
A qualified children’s yoga teacher will safely guide the poses that are appropriate for your child’s age and development. They will have a wealth of creative ideas and resources to draw upon so your child will stay engaged while they learn.
When children are in a yoga class they tend to listen more and respond better to the guidance of a teacher than they do to their parent. A class environment will provide the opportunity for them to interact with other students and to learn how to create a space of respect, patience and tolerance of other people’s differences.
Children will usually spend longer in the relaxation phase of yoga when under the guidance of a teacher, especially if they are given an eye pillow and a head massage! Children often say that the still and quiet time is their favourite part of the class.
In whatever way you choose to share yoga with your child, ensure that this is a time for them to play, explore their body and find the balance of movement and stillness. The tools that yoga can teach them will translate into tools they can use to cope with the stresses of everyday life, and that is an invaluable gift to offer your child.
The science behind the yoga breath relates to the two different modes of the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered by threats to our survival. Known commonly as the fight or flight mode, the body’s response includes increased heart rate, shallow breathing, activated muscles, high adrenaline levels and heightened emotions. When the nervous system is in parasympathetic mode, the body is in a state of calm and information can be processed.
When we breathe deeply, the lungs expand and press onto the diaphragm, a muscle that runs horizontally through the torso separating the lungs from the digestive organs. When the diaphragm is pressed, the vagus nerve in the front of the torso is stimulated, and it switches the nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic mode which sends a message to the brain to calm down.