People may be surprised at the thought of children doing yoga. Common questions include:
How can they do all the poses?
Can they pay attention for that long?
Do they actually stay on their mats?
What is the benefit since kids move their bodies all the time?
Yoga classes are highly beneficial for children. Not only can they learn to improve their body awareness and understanding of their body in relation to other people (for example, personal space), but yoga also builds strength, balance and coordination. What kids learn in yoga can help them regulate their sensory systems to calm themselves down; they also learn strategies for relaxation, meditation and breathing to decrease anxiety, anger and stress. Yoga can help set children on a path of healthy habits and wellness.
A Typical Yoga Class
During a typical yoga class, there is a flow that starts with a "centering," or becoming aware of the body. For children, this involves a lot of visuals and fun props. They learn different breaths like volcano breath, where they get to breathe out and explode and jump, and then move into more high-energy movement. Then they are requested to quiet themselves, listen to a bell and start to focus their attention. Unlike adult classes, the focus on doing the poses with perfect alignment is deemphasized in children's classes, and there is more emphasis on understanding what it means to "step your right foot forward," "feel your toes pressing on the mat" or "squeeze your wings (scapulas) together" - experiencing where those body parts are and what they feel like.
Children's main occupation is play, and this is how they learn and become interested, so children's yoga classes involve a lot of games and fun activities. Some of these activities, depending on the class structure, may focus on strength and physical movement, but games are also employed that address attention, awareness and listening, which are other less focused-on aspects of yoga. In games like "What's Different," a child stands in the middle of a group and the group studies her. Then that child hides or changes something about herself (her hair/clothing, etc.) and the other children must have paid attention in order to discover what she changed. At the end of a class, as with adults,there is a time to rest (savasana). For kids, this can be difficult, so they are helped by listening to some guided imagery or body scanning, having their feet massaged, gazing at a color-changing candle or listening to soothing music.
This flow often helps those children who need assistance in learning how to calm their bodies. The children are not expected to stay on the mat throughout the entire class, though they do practice with this. Another huge benefit is being able to give ideas to the families on how to help their children relax and what works for each child, as everyone responds differently to different methods.
Children Love Yoga!
Most importantly, children love yoga! They are excited to do the poses and even more excited when they see their balance improve and are able to control their bodies more easily. Yoga can be especially beneficial to kids with special needs, who may need more individual attention than is availabe in faster-paced team sports or gymnastics classes. These children are especially in need of connecting with their bodies and to work on the small postural muscles and core strength for which yoga is so beneficial. It also helps those children who need a structured space and to know where they are "supposed" to be (their mat). These children are given the opportunity to take breaks and come back when they are ready. They are also given opportunities for teamwork and learn to support each other-for instance, through a group "tree" pose or games that involve teamwork and taking turns.
Yoga for Teens
Teen yoga starts to look more like an adult class with fewer games. This age group especially benefits from yoga, as their bodies are changing and they need to focus even more on maintaining good posture, paying attention and understanding where their body is and how to keep it balanced as it shifts and changes.
Yoga is a lifelong journey that can start with babies and continue into old age. Each age group has a different focus, but every age group, and especially every level of ability, benefits immensely from yoga.
Katherine Overman, a registered yoga teacher, is an occupational therapist with The Treatment and Learning Centers and has been working with children with special needs since 2004.