Saturday, 9 July 2011

Children and Yoga: Does It Work?

Scarlet (4) in Cobra

Children experience many of the same physical benefits adults do from practicing yoga. They learn early on to tune into their bodies. Self-esteem is bolstered as the children gain control over their bodies and minds.

Yoga enhances their imagination and empathy. Children may be asked in a class to strike poses from nature. They might assume the pose of a snake, or a tree, or a dog. Then they may be asked to imagine what it would be like to be those life forms. In this way, children learn early on to connect with all the life on the planet and realise that similarities far outweigh differences.

Yoga teaches children to have fun and move their bodies in a non-competitive environment. Yoga isn’t about being right or wrong, or being best or worst. It is about bringing unity to one’s own life. Children can work together to help each other reach this goal.

Yoga teaches self-discipline. As part of the practice of yoga, kids need to slow down, hold certain postures, breathe or think in a certain way. Yoga encourages children to master themselves rather than wait for an adult to control them.

Yoga can also be a way to strengthen families. Yoga is an exercise that parents and children and even grandparents can practice and talk about together. As children participate in yoga with their families, they feel closer to their loved ones.

Through practicing yoga, children can learn ways to relax and get control of stress in their lives. A child worried about a test, for instance, might use the meditation or breathing techniques of yoga to help her calm down and focus.

By teaching self awareness, self control, and concentration, yoga can also help to manage children who have been diagnosed with ADHD – attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Yoga has also been used with some success to help children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and autism. Yoga has also been used to help kids with cancer cope with their diagnosis and with scary medical procedures.

By aiding in stress reduction, reducing anxiety, increasing body awareness, strength, and flexibility and increasing self-regulation. Persons with Autism may particularly benefit from yoga in that heightened anxiety, poor motor coordination and strength and weak self-regulation are three areas in which most persons with autistic spectrum disorders struggle and for which there are few other solutions. Yoga poses and breathing techniques could prove to be very helpful interventions for increasing the quality of life for children and adolescents with ASDs. By practicing a simple warm up, strengthening, calming, and tension-releasing exercises that are suitable for reducing coping mechanisms such as hand-flapping, and increasing muscle tone, muscle strength and body awareness. 

A student I teach says the following, “I have a grandson with Asperger Syndrome who has been doing yoga for about a year. He does especially well with a modified Tree Pose and the modified Spinal Twist. Both poses are relaxing and keep his arms occupied. The Tree is wonderful for strengthening his muscles and helping his balance. The Spinal Twist is a very gentle twist that is good for his upper torso. These yoga poses have helped him release energy in a positive way."

The incidence of diagnosed autism has risen sharply over the past 20 years; some estimates put the rate as high as one in 500 children. Yet I have found very few articles based on yogic training and autistic children. One program in Seattle maintained positive results with a yoga-based treatment called Integrated Movement Therapy; the children reportedly improved their balance and sociability as well as their communication. 

Many adults practice yoga not only for the ways that it benefits the body, but also for its well proven effectiveness in improving mental clarity and emotional balance, and now growing numbers of children are discovering that this type of exercise can be good for them, as well. Some schools have begun to incorporate "kids yoga" classes into their curriculum, recognising the positive effects that yoga can have on students.

The benefits of yoga are far-reaching, with participants in yoga classes for children experiencing all sorts of physical and emotional changes. Yoga is calming and is a wonderful stress reducer, which can be quite helpful for today’s generation of over-scheduled, high stress kids. Unlike a generation ago, modern kids are often kept busy with a number of organised activities, allowing them very little time to simply unwind and relax, but yoga helps them to do just that. While all kids can benefit from yoga, those with hyperactivity or anxiety conditions may be especially well suited to yoga classes.

In addition to the emotional benefits of yoga, kids who enrol in yoga classes reap a number of physical rewards. Increased strength, flexibility, better balance, improved coordination, and heightened body confidence are common for those who practice yoga regularly, and with continued practice, many people notice an enhanced spiritual connection to the exercise.

As kids get older and are better able to take direction, parents may want to consider enrolling them in classes specifically labelled “yoga for children” or “yoga for kids.” Children are not simply small adults, so they need to have instructors who are educated in paediatric physiology and have the personality to offer patient, positive, and careful direction.

Incorporating Yoga into a School Curriculum

When presented with options, many parents would choose to include yoga as part of the physical education programmes at their children’s schools. Some schools haven’t made changes to their curriculum in years (in some cases, it may even have been decades!), but today’s forward-thinking educators are often enthusiastic about offering children a well-rounded educational experience. Interested parents may wish to contact their children’s teachers about incorporating yoga instruction into their kids’ school days.

Yoga is an age old practice, but has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years. Today’s busy lifestyles often require that people of all ages (kids included) actively seek healthy ways to relax and release stress. Yoga is an ideal choice for many, with benefits that are far reaching. Additionally, yoga teaches a respect for the body and spirit, encouraging participants to look at their overall health and lifestyle choices to see that they are making sound decisions regarding their nutrition, environment, and relationships. Such thoughtful introspection is an especially good habit to install in childhood, when many lifelong attitudes are being developed.

Overall, children seem to derive great benefits from doing yoga. The next time you put on the DVD for your own workout, think about including your little one in the fun. Chances are you’ll be glad you did.

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