The Benefits of Yoga for Children
Our fast-paced world provides few opportunities to slow down, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the lives of today’s children. Typical days can include pre-dawn wakeup calls, 6-hour school days, after-school clubs, jobs, and a litany of activities. Last minute dinners are followed by sleepy homework sessions and late bedtimes. This exhausting process is repeated over and over, day after day.
While this goal-oriented, forward looking lifestyle certainly has some benefits, there are negative effects as well. Among our students are unprecedented rates of stress, bullying, obesity, learning issues, school violence, and depression.1
Yoga and Stress
Indeed, childhood is an intense period of physical, emotional, social, and intellectual growth. Often when confronted with these stressors the body’s sympathetic nervous system is triggered, resulting in an elevated heart rate and blood pressure which, over time, contributes to a lowered immune system, low self-esteem, depression, and isolation.2
Research has shown that school curriculums incorporating stress management programs improve academic performance, self-esteem, classroom behaviors, concentration, and emotional balance. In addition, there is a decrease in helplessness, aggression, and behavioral problems of students.3
Yoga is a holistic, comprehensive approach to stress, and can offset stressors by providing a moment of pause amidst all the activity. The word yoga originates from the Sanskrit meaning “to yoke,” to bring together in the mind, body, and spirit.4 Using breathing integrated with physical postures and relaxation methods, yoga creates experiences to develop a healthy and balanced life. This safe and nurturing environment can also foster physical, intellectual, and spiritual development. Yoga offers a way for students to reconnect their bodies with their minds.
Pranayama, the practice of breath awareness prominent in yoga, encourages parasympathetic drive, allowing the body to slow down and bring the mind and body back into balance. Transferring this skill of breath is key to handling stressful situations—for instance, before taking a big test—and emphasizes a creative outlet to balance overly structured and stressful atmospheres of classrooms. Yoga can also be used as a tool to help foster students’ motivation, cultivate an internal locus of control, and facilitate deeper and more restful sleep.
Yoga and Obesity
Stressful and overly structured atmospheres can contribute to childhood obesity. Routine physical activity is often a challenge with reduced physical education in school, more time spent in a car or bus travel, and the increase in sedentary activities such as playing video games or watching television. According to the Centers for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov), the rates of obesity and inactivity in the U.S. are dramatic. Of children ages 6-19, 17 percent are obese, equaling about 9 million children. In addition, 35 percent of the 9 million children do not meet the minimum requirements of regular activity (1 hour per day) set by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
This inactivity is unfortunately supplemented by poor eating habits. Consumers today are bombarded by unhealthy food marketing, promoting processed foods, junk foods, and fast foods that fit into our fast-paced lives. Obesity is linked to such unhealthy eating habits.
While yoga is often perceived as a passive activity, in reality it is extremely engaging. It is physical, yet safe, and also encourages healthy and balanced living. According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, yoga provides learning experiences in all major focus areas of a physically educated and active person.5 Thus, actively engaging in yoga on a regular basis is one way to strive toward the AAP’s activity requirements and help children remain within a healthy weight range.
Yoga and Body Acceptance
Another aspect of yoga that is beneficial for children is the practice of self-awareness, or pratyahara. Through this practice students begin to listen to their internal cues and emotions. By shifting self-awareness inward, a buffer forms between the yoga student and the numerous negative societal and cultural influences (media, Internet, etc.) that promote unhealthy living and profoundly influence poor body images.
Yoga fosters self acceptance and actualization. It invites all participants to improve concentration and focus, and even helps develop self-compassion and compassion for others.
Benefits for Every Child
The beauty of yoga is that its benefits are available to students of every school-age group. For young students (4–6 years) yoga creates a framework for total body movement and gross motor development.6 Incorporating games, storytelling, and songs allow this age group to connect with the energy of the poses and philosophy of the practice. Children ages 7–9 years benefit from yoga by building on their gross motor skills while taking on challenges in strength, agility, and endurance, as well as cooperation.7 Benefits for those coming into adolescence (10–12 years) include creating a safe place to thrive, while their bodies experience amazing changes and their connections to social peers strengthen.8
While the teenage years can typically be a time for disconnect, this age group can also vastly benefit from yoga. As Tummers (2009) states, “Practice allows for self-study and self-care as well as development of vital intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, such as improved communication skills, which are critically needed at this developmental stage”.9
Students with learning or behavioral challenges also benefit from yoga practice. Shown to be an effective stress-management tool, studies show that students in primary grades with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who practiced yoga improved on-task time and attention as well as reduced symptoms.10 In addition, yoga has been used to help at-risk youth around the U.S. and is seen as an important outlet for students who have behavioral problems, spent time in the juvenile justice system, or failed at traditional school settings.11 The practice has also been shown to be an effective teaching tool when working with students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, sensory integration disorder, and learning difficulties.12
Why it Works
Yoga works by engaging the whole body and mind, providing activities that incorporate learning styles such as visual, kinesthetic, musical, intuitive, and naturalist (the awareness of one’s personal environment and interaction with nature).13 By providing students with inner resources—such as calming, centering, and self-acceptance—yoga helps them feel connected and whole.
How it Works
When teaching yoga to children, it is essential that there is a safe and accepting environment. Directing classes that are focused on the student and accepting of all individual experiences is key to encouraging a positive social environment. 14
Fortunately, yoga does not have to be confined to traditional setting such as a studio or a gym. Many yoga exercises are perfectly suited to an ordinary classroom. As suggested in Yoga Games for Children, “[s]ome exercises need a little adaptation—such as sitting on a chair with…feet on the ground instead of sitting or lying on the floor. Others can be done while standing next to a desk.”15
There are many resources out there today to help integrate yoga into children’s lives. Parents and teachers have a wide access to books, articles, DVDs, CDs, and even podcasts to help creating lesson plans. Many studios also offer kids yoga classes with instructors specially trained to teach children.
Currently we are at a crossroads of school reform. Our nation’s public schools are beginning to see the importance of supporting academic achievement while promoting healthy behaviors. Approximately 53 million children attend the 117,500 elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.16 We have an amazing opportunity and responsibility to introduce health initiatives such as yoga programs in schools and communities to help prepare students for healthy and balanced living.17
Kristin Henningsen is an adjunct professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences and teaches courses such as Vitamins, Herbs, and Nutritional Supplements and Contemporary Diet and Nutrition. Ms. Henningsen has deep roots in the fields of ethnobotany and herbal medicine. After receiving both her Bachelor of Science in Botany and Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology, Ms. Henningsen went on to complete her Master of Science in Biology at Northern Arizona University where she studied the medicinal plants of the area, focusing on their traditional uses by the 13 Native American tribes in the region. She has also worked as a research assistant with the nonprofit organization the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association, completing a field guide to the native plants of Arizona amongst other projects.
Ms. Henningsen has extended this work into the field of complementary and alternative medicine. She is a certified and practicing consulting herbalist, and is the proprietor of an herbal health and healing company. She has been researching, using, and teaching about medicinal plants for more than 10 years. Ms. Henningsen is also a certified yoga instructor and utilizes yoga therapy as an alternative healing technique.