The benefits of teaching yoga to kids

By: Diana Ballon

Author: Canadian Living


The benefits of teaching yoga to kids

By: Diana Ballon
Luka used to be a perfectionist. "Everything had to be perfect," says Angie Continisio of her now 10-year-old son. "He would erase things in his homework until the page was almost shredded."

It was only through meditation, guided imagery and yoga that Luka began to make gradual changes.

He learned that he didn't have to be perfect, and that he could accept things the way they were and be OK with it, says Continisio, owner of Kids Butterfly Yoga in Montreal. Luka's frustration and tantrums also waned.

Continisio isn't the only parent singing the praises of the calming power of yoga. A recent literature review on the therapeutic effects of yoga for children, published in the journal Pediatric Physical Therapy, attests to a number of benefits. One study described yoga as a mind-body therapy able to reduce the "physical and mental tension" created by stress. Another report showed that yoga improves kids' focus, concentration and memory, while a study of kids in group homes suggested that yoga helped improve their appetites, sleep and overall well-being.

It's no surprise, then, that many elementary schools, after-school programs, camps, day-care centres and formerly adult-only yoga studios are now embracing yoga as a way to calm down kids and teens, and to reduce stress and, in some cases, anxiety – which is the most common mental health problem among kids.

Mind and body benefits of yoga for kids
What makes yoga so effective for kids who suffer from stress and anxiety is that its tension-busting techniques go beyond the physical. "Yoga is awareness," says Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati, an established yoga teacher in Australia.

Focusing on physical postures (asanas), breathing (pranayama) and the repetition of mantras (such as "Om namah shivaya," meaning "I bow to my true inner self") can improve kids' and teens' memory and concentration.

But what about helping children feel more confident and have better self-esteem? "You manage that by having a strong mind," says Saraswati, speaking not only as a yoga teacher, but also as a mind-body therapist and medical doctor. "Yoga alone is not enough," he says, adding that it is part of a lifestyle of connection, or "the yoga of relationships."

Page 1 of 3 – Discover how kids' yoga classes differ from adult classes on page 2.
This is actually a simple concept. For example, in a perfect world we wouldn't just drive our kids to their yoga classes – we would practise with them and be mindful of the way we live our lives, being present, loving and engaged as parents. "When you feel calm, when you feel safe and peaceful: This is where the real learning happens," says Sherry LeBlanc, director of Yoga 4 Kids, a Toronto program that teaches yoga and meditation to kids of all ages and abilities, including those with special needs.

Have kids focus on meditation
LeBlanc says a good yoga teacher creates an environment in which there is no competition; kids can try things without being judged or excluded and are guided to practise with their thoughts focused on the moment, rather than what they're going to eat for dinner that night or whether they'll be ready for an exam the next day. It's a setting far removed from the distractions of TV, the Internet, cellphones and nonstop activities, not to mention all the social pressures and choices confronted by teens.

The same holds true of meditation. "In meditation, it's difficult to sit with ourselves. We're constantly looking for distractions," LeBlanc says. The stillness of meditation helps challenge this.

Eleven-year-old Carly Schwind, a regular participant in LeBlanc's program, puts these meditative tricks to good use outside the classroom. "If I have an argument with my sister, I go into my room and lie on the bed and meditate," she says. And when she had to have blood drawn at the doctor one day, she used yogic breathing to counter her fears. "Yoga gives my kids a foundation of calmness," adds her dad, Roger.

What it's like inside a kids' yoga class
Some parents new to kids' yoga expect the practice to look like it does in adult classes. "Many parents will drop their kids off and say, 'John is so hyper. He needs to do yoga,'"says Continisio. "They expect the kids to be all quiet and still."

But although a typical class incorporates yoga postures, controlled and conscious breathing, and some form of meditation, you'll also find young children barking like dogs, meowing like cats or roaring like lions. In a class taught by Toronto instructor Livia Berius, children may begin by playing "yoga tag" or games in which they run or march and then touch, say, a foot to a foot, or a knee to a knee, or dance and then freeze into different postures. It's a way for them to release their energy and connect to different parts of their bodies.

Page 2 of 3 – Learn how to tell if your child will like yoga on page 3.

A playful approach
With kids, the emphasis is often on play – on doing postures derived from nature and animals, such as crow, butterfly and tree poses. And even for more advanced teens, such as Carly Schwind's 14-year-old sister, Madeline, it's not necessarily about perfecting these postures or forcing a stretch. "Yoga isn't competitive like other sports," she says. "Everyone is accepted for their own abilities."

"For kids, yoga is a very social activity," says Berius. Saraswati concurs. "With children, it's more about having fun and engaging with family...rather than yoga as an introverting practice, taking you within [as it is with adults]."

At the end of a yoga class, a brief meditation or relaxation period will look different depending on the age of the children. At a yoga camp where Berius teaches, kids make their own relaxation forts with the blankets, mats and bolsters around them, and aromatherapy and massage are incorporated into the routine.

Continisio helps kids learn the sensation of tightening and relaxing different parts of their bodies by having them squeeze marbles under their toes and stress balls in their hands. In other settings, a class might wrap up with a quiet "corpse pose" (for which they lie flat on the ground), with soft music playing.

Bringing yoga home

While there are many advantages to working with an experienced instructor in a group, yoga and meditation can also be practised at home, once you have had some initial training, or with the help of a yoga DVD or book. If you have young kids, try making yoga a family practice. Choose a space in your house where kids there won't be distractions and a time when it's quiet. It could be at the beginning of the day, before bedtime, or for 20 to 30 minutes when there's nothing else going on. Then set the stage – dim the lights, put on some soft music – and begin.

Finding a class that fits
Before signing your wee one up for a yoga or meditation class, first make sure he or she has a glimmer of interest. "The child needs to want to be there," says Sherry LeBlanc, director of the Yoga 4 Kids program in Toronto. If they're willing to try it, look for a class that's taught by someone who has been specially trained to work with children.

This story was originally titled "Generation Flex" in the August 2011 issue.

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The benefits of teaching yoga to kids