by Louise Goldberg
Most children are natural yogis. Joyful and intuitive, they love to stretch and twist and play. They tend to be curious and fully involved in the moment, rarely dwelling on the past or future. They are responsive to their bodies’ needs and seek comfort and ease in posture.
Yet for some children, the connection between body and mind is inhibited. Children with sensory processing challenges may be awkward with exercise or team sports. Most children learn to play games through imitation, a skill that is often lacking among children on the autism spectrum. Many are not comfortable with roughhousing or loud noises.
Research shows that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to have higher levels of the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Without a means of releasing tension through play and exercise, stress and anxiety levels increase. Lack of physical play has also been correlated with increased incidence of ADHD behaviors.
Interacting with others provides children practice in taking turns, establishing boundaries and attending to others’ feelings. These essential social and emotional skills contribute to success in academic performance as well as interpersonal relationships.
Yoga for children is a playful form of movement, easily implemented into the school day or at home, in which kids learn by doing as well as by seeing and listening to instruction. This multi-modal approach makes it accessible to learners of all abilities. In yoga, children discover what makes them feel comfortable. Through gentle repetition and practice, they develop tools for self-regulation, easing anxiety and promoting independence.
Steps for Stillness. Creating community. Yoga for children is about having fun with movement and feeling accepted exactly as you are. By creating a sense of community among children, we elevate their self-esteem and grant them permission to be themselves. Yoga combines all learning modalities in a non-competitive, inclusive activity so that no child is left out.
Those with physical or learning challenges can be guided to variations in any pose. Children can become standing or seated warriors, using just the arms. Any child can “fly” like a super hero—on their belly, back or seated in a chair—using their imagination or body. You can light a child’s “candle” in variations of shoulder stand, whether it’s using toes, knee or fingertips. If physical contact with others is not comfortable due to sensory challenges, children may rock and roll independently. Otherwise, holding hands while “seesawing” back and forth is a simple way to introduce partnering in poses. As long as they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else, they can’t get it wrong!
Focus. Yoga teaches kids how to focus the mind and become one-pointed. Balance postures work especially well for this. Ask children to attempt to balance in a simple tree posture while looking around the room or counting aloud backwards from 97 by 4’s. It’s really difficult. Then give them each a focus spot for their eyes about their height in front of them. Guide them to lift one foot and place it behind the other without talking or looking around the room. They will be amazed at how much easier it is to balance when focused. Some will be more comfortable practicing the pose seated in a chair. Start with palms together in “tree hands” and focus the eyes on a spot on the ground. Elevate the hands as they breathe in and lower as they breathe out. This focused practice quiets the mind and creates inner calm.
Breathing. As children become more comfortable in their bodies, it’s easier for them to notice their breathing. Begin with their hands on their belly or chest, guiding them to observe their breath. Where else in their body do they feel the breath? In their nose, mouth, chest, back?
Next, help children to experiment with activities that change their breathing. If they hop on one foot for 30 seconds, what happens to their rate and quality of respiration? Compare that to a slow, focused walk around the room. Let this be a discovery, without a “right” or “wrong.”
Now, begin to explore the effect of thoughts and feelings on the breath. Ask them to think about a scary story—how does that affect their breathing? What about resting on their backs, “floating on a cloud?” Or resting curled up in Child’s Pose? Does that shift the breathing in another way? As children learn that they can change their rate of respiration through their posture or their thoughts, we offer them an experience of independence and self-control.
Playful yoga for children is useful for teaching self-regulation and helping all children feel better about themselves. Yoga fosters a sense of community, promotes focused attention and relieves stress. These skills contribute to happier, healthier children.
Louise Goldberg, MA, ERYT-500, CYT, is the author of Classroom Yoga Breaks (WW Norton, 2017) and Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs (WW Norton, 2013). She leads teacher trainings in Creative Relaxation yoga therapy for children with autism and special needs internationally and is the owner/director of the Yoga Center of Deerfield Beach. For more information, call 954-427-2353 and/or visit YogaCenterdb.com.