Schoolwork, extracurricular activities, family finances, bullying — it’s no wonder our kids struggle with anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed by their surroundings. These feelings can result in our kids having trouble in school, poor communication skills and low self-esteem. As parents, we search for the answers to help our children successfully manage the challenges they will face throughout their lives.
There is a solution that could change the way our children react to, and deal with, the demands of their environment. An ancient practice utilized daily by many adults, it’s the discipline known as yoga, which involves breathing, poses and meditation.
Yoga is the simple art of learning to focus on yourself — how you’re feeling, where you’re feeling it, and how to control it. When practicing yoga, whether it is for one minute or one hour, children have the opportunity to block out their surroundings and concentrate on themselves, their heartbeat and how their bodies are feeling. Children can have more built-up anxiety and fear than parents might assume. It can be the result of any number of things: taking a test, making new friends, or simply being in an unfamiliar or unpleasant situation. Children face such challenges daily, starting in preschool. By acknowledging their feelings, and being taught how to recognize and release them properly, children can control their reactions simply by breathing and continuing to focus on their breath. They can redirect their fear and anxiety.
Children of all ages can do this simply by taking five breaths. Have your child close her eyes, placing one hand on her heart and the other on her belly button. With each inhale, she inflates her belly, like a balloon. With each exhale, she deflates her belly. As she works her way up to five breaths, in and out, she should increasingly slow her exhalations, making them longer, getting rid of the tense breath. This method can work for anyone, from the preschooler learning to tie her shoes to the middle school student surrounded by homework, not knowing what to tackle first.
Tense muscles and a fast heartbeat are the body’s natural reaction to stress and anxiety. Those symptoms are created as part of a nervous system response to the body feeling threatened. By practicing breathing exercises, children — as well as adults — can learn how to release what’s affecting their mind and physically slow down their heartbeat.
Yoga poses can help as well, not only by loosening and strengthening tight muscles, but by massaging internal organs that one might not feel as being tensed. An example of a beneficial pose is the spinal twist, either seated or lying down. This pose can help with digestion and, internally, massage the abdominal organs.
Psychologically, yoga can improve confidence and self-esteem. If you’re able to focus on yourself and your positive attributes, it can be more difficult to let others mentally bring you down through their words and actions. Teaching kids, at an early age, what’s important and what’s superficial, and how to focus on the good and walk away from the negative (or how to release it), can have a lifetime effect.
Meditation is a great tool to use when kids need to release built-up fear or anxiety. Guided meditation can help kids acknowledge what’s bothering them, then let it go. One example of guided meditation is to have your child close his eyes and think of a time when something bothered him, made him angry or scared him. Have him picture clouds passing over his head and ask him to send his negative feelings up to the clouds and watch them drift away.
Another technique is to have your child imagine her breath as colored air. When she breathes in she can visualize light-colored, clean, healthy oxygen traveling through her body all the way down to her toes. When she breathes out, she can imagine the exhaled air being gray in color and carrying any negative thoughts or feelings she no longer needs.
Yoga for children can be either similar or different from what is known as adult yoga. It all depends on the child and his personality. Some younger children might be more responsive to a fun type of yoga class, in which they moo like a cow during Cow pose, or roar like a lion while practicing breathing exercises. There are also many yoga games in which children are practicing yoga and don’t realize it. Some kids, however, will be more receptive to a quieter pace of yoga, during which they can focus more on what needs strengthening, whether it be their mind, body or both.
Research shows that yoga can help students perform better both in school and in relationships. It has shown that children who regularly practice relaxation techniques have better GPAs than those who don’t, according to a study in the .
Although the benefits of yoga are the same for all children, those with special needs may find it particularly useful, depending on their need of focus. Children can learn to loosen particular muscles, calm their mind and redirect feelings or thoughts to a positive outlet. With proper instruction, children with special needs may be able to use yoga to help overcome challenges through a natural channel. Although research into the benefits of yoga for special-needs children is currently ongoing, there have been studies performed in both Germany and Australia that have demonstrated its usefulness for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Whether children have a special need or a special circumstance, by practicing yoga they may physically strengthen their muscles — improving posture and flexibility — and, mentally, increase their self-esteem. Simply by taking a moment away from their surrounding factors, noticing the way their body feels, and concentrating on their breathing, children may gain greater control of their thoughts, feelings and reactions. Through meditation, they picture themselves succeeding, and they believe it.
In the end, if you really want your kids to get the full benefits of yoga, you need to understand and practice it yourself. When kids see their parents practicing what they preach, they are much more likely to do the same. Teach each other to “take five” (breaths), when needed. Namaste.