On a recent camping trip, my 4-year-old son accidentally spilled his bowl of cereal—including the last of the precious blueberries—into the dirt. His lower lip started to quiver.
Thinking fast, I stepped in front of him, hands pressed together at my chest. “You know what helps when I get upset? Volcano pose!”
I lowered into a yoga squat then jumped high, pushing my arms overhead while making loud erupting noises. His whimper turned into a giggle, and he joined in to “explode" his own frustration a few times. Meltdown averted, thanks to a creative mind-body movement.
More children are practicing mindfulness
Although I’ve practiced and taught yoga and meditation for two decades, I’ve only recently started to realize its benefits for kids. And I’m not the only one: According to the Harvard Health Blog about 3 percent of all children in the United States are involved in mindfulness programs.
From mat time for moms and babes to high school meditation programs, yoga and meditation for kids is more prevalent than ever before.
“Although it’s exciting to see mindfulness for kids becoming more widespread, the reasons behind the surge are heartbreaking,” says Giselle Shardlow, founder of Kids Yoga Stories. She points out that mindfulness is often used as a remedy for children who are stressed, not sleeping well or don’t exercise enough.
Dozens of research studies have shown that mindfulness practices—whether it’s yoga, breathing techniques or meditation—enhance children’s mental and physical health, and also help them cope with stressful situations.
Yoga helps kids develop self-awareness
Fifteen years ago, when Shardlow set out to create yoga-based lesson plans for her students, she couldn’t find any resources. Today, her company’s instructive books and games that help kids learn yoga are distributed in more than 50 countries.
“Teaching children yoga helps them be active, calm and connected with others,” says Shardlow.
Bidyut Bose, founder of the Niroga Institute, says yoga can help train kids to recognize their emotions.
“I’ve seen the tentacles of toxic stress in our children and in the adults around them, which have serious effects on brain development and behavior,” Bose says. “Sure, yoga can help kids feel calm and relaxed. But it’s more powerful than that. The essence of it is generating self-awareness, which has a profound impact on everything we do.”
“While it doesn’t erase sorrow or anger, practices like yoga give [kids] a way to process feelings in a healthy way,” explains Ann Huber of YogaKids, one of the first yoga-teacher certification programs designed specifically for instructing children.
Schools are integrating yoga and meditation
Hundreds of schools across the country are now offering yoga and meditation in classrooms or after-school programs.
Huber recalls that initially most of YogaKids’s clients were yogis interested in broadening their teaching repertoire. Now, the program certifies more educators who want to integrate yoga into their classrooms.
“Children learn better by engaging their whole bodies,” says Jess Matthiae, founder of Peaceful Heart, a yoga-inspired preschool and family-centered studio in Montana. “For instance, yoga improves motor skills and coordination, and also helps develop self-confidence and self-expression.”
While research into how school kids may benefit from yoga and meditation is still in its infancy, the early results are promising. A 2015 study, for example, exposed younger children (average age of 6) to a biweekly school program consisting of 1–2 minutes of meditation followed by 6–10 yoga poses. Eighty-three percent of the kids said they felt happier, stronger and more relaxed after practicing yoga (side note: their favorite pose was upward-facing dog).
A 2012 study compared the anxiety levels of two groups of high schoolers: one participating in traditional physical education classes and the other participating in a yoga program. The PE participants showed worse anxiety at the end of the study, while the yoga participants maintained or improved their moods.
And in San Francisco, beginning in 2007, several secondary schools chose to lengthen their school day by 30 minutes to include time for meditation. Over a four-year period, the schools saw better academic performance and a 79 percent decrease in suspensions.
Yoga and meditation may also benefit children with neurobehavioral disorders like ADHD or Asperger’s. And a 2012 study found that daily yoga practice improved classroom behavior among children with autism by improving their concentration and social skills.
“Yoga helps educate more than just our children’s brains. It also includes emotional, spiritual and physical learning,” Matthiae explains.
Tips for yoga and meditation at home
Experts like Huber, CEO of YogaKids, say that one of the best ways to introduce children to mindfulness is at home through their most trusted role models: their caregivers. But that doesn’t mean you have to commit to hour-long meditation sessions or become a certified yoga instructor.
“Teaching grownup yoga to kids doesn’t work,” Huber says. And that’s good news for busy families, since she and other professionals recommend keeping children’s mindfulness practices simple, fun and short.
According to Shardlow, it’s important that adults share yoga and meditation authentically because kids mimic their caregivers. “If we as adults can find our own magical yoga moments, our excitement and happiness will radiate to our children.”
She suggests three easy steps to help families get started with a yoga routine:
- First, notice any challenges your children are facing. Target the practice to one specific outcome you’d like to see. If you’d like to transition more calmly to school, you could sit with your child for 3 mindful “bear belly breaths” just before you walk out the door each morning.
- Second, explore what most interests you and fits your family dynamic. Seated poses before breakfast? Reciting positive self-affirmations over dinner? Follow-the-leader yoga?
- Third, pick one technique that interests you (either based upon your own knowledge or the resources listed below), try it out yourself first and then introduce it to your children. This could be as simple as three breaths before bed, sitting quietly for 2 minutes each morning or a few sun salutations together.
Tips for kids' yoga in group settings
Whether it's a play date or a yoga session at school, here are a few suggestions for how to introduce kids' yoga to a group.
Turn it into a story, song or game.
- Read a book or make up your own story to guide the kids through poses: “Once upon a time, there was a dog who ran through a forest and met a cat who lived in a tree.”
- Add movement to traditional children’s songs, such as listening to “You Are My Sunshine” as the backdrop to sun salutations or imitating the animal antics in “Down By The Bay.”
- Be loud and move around in the poses—moo as you arch your back in cow, bark in upward dog, reach for each others’ hands while in warrior stance.
- Integrate yoga into a favorite game like freeze tag: When someone is tagged, they have to freeze in a yoga pose and someone else must copy the pose to unfreeze them.
- Play follow-the-leader in a circle where everyone has the chance to make up a pose.
Create a welcoming space.
- Set up in a circle so everyone can see each other. If working with more than 5-6 kids (especially if they are under 6 years old), split up into two circles with at least one adult per circle.
- Ask the kids to pick a favorite song as the background music.
- Use mats, scarves or towels to mark each person’s special spot. For children under 8, you can cut yoga mats in half so they fit smaller bodies.
- Signal the beginning and end of the practice with a bell, drum, chimes or by exhaling “om” together.
- Speak in an animated and engaging voice to keep it playful. Trade off who leads so that you can grow and learn alongside your children.
- Have fun yourself, and the kids will feed off your joy.
Find resources to get started.
- Look for kid-oriented or family-friendly yoga classes near you.
- Watch videos on YouTube and follow along with your kids.
- Download free pictures and descriptions of poses to have on hand at home.
- Sign up for yoga training or certification programs yourself.
All photos by Rob Roberts.