Yoga is the practice of accessing and integrating all aspects of our true nature — body, mind, and spirit — in the pursuit of inner harmony, says Alexandra De Collibus, a yoga teacher and founder of Sweet Pea Yoga, a yoga studio for infants, toddler, and kids located throughout Massachusetts. As yoga becomes more popular in schools through physical education classes and after-school programs, that popularity comes with controversy. Although many adults like the benefits of yoga, some parents feel that the practice might have a religious association and, like prayer, shouldn’t be allowed in a public space. They argue that yoga is an offshoot of Hinduism and that it disseminates religious and meditation principles with its use of “om” and “namaste” chanting. Some also believe that the asanas, or postures, such as the sun salutation, are a form of Hindu religious worship. To dispel this notion and avoid any religious or cultural messages, most yoga teachers focus on the benefits of the exercises and use generic terms, instead of the Sanskrit names, for the poses, renaming them cat, bridge, table, tree, downward-facing dog, volcano, and so forth. Yoga’s rising popularity can be attributed to its basic stretching advantages and improved body awareness, with the added component of a mind-body connection.
Despite the controversy, yoga is beneficial to kids in many ways. Because children encounter emotional, social, and physical challenges or conflicts, a dedicated and intentional yoga practice that includes breathing techniques, behavioral guidelines, and physical postures can be incredibly valuable for them, De Collibus says. She also believes that yoga is something children can practice anywhere and that the breathing, the concentration, the poses, and the way kids learn to act or react to situations, will lead to constant self-discovery and inquisitiveness. Plus, yoga is portable, and no mat, special clothing, or special pillow is absolutely necessary.
Shana Meyerson, the founder of mini yogis (miniyogis.com), a yoga studio Southern California that offers classes for kids, believes that yoga builds self-esteem and self-respect. “A child’s yoga practice is a rare opportunity to experience play and focus without worrying about being wrong,” she says. Meyerson believes that yoga is an option for children who shy away from physical activity or group activities for fear of failure or being picked last, and it helps athletic children excel in other physical activities and sports. Christina Enneking, the founder of Heart Happy Yoga, a studio in Los Gatos, California, believes yoga introduces cornerstone values “such as non-harming, truthfulness, moderation, cleanliness, gratitude, and self-discipline.” There are five key areas where kids benefit from the practice of yoga, and each of them improves their overall well-being.
It Enhances Physical Flexibility Yoga promotes physical strength because kids learn to use all of their muscles in new ways. Whether a pose is done standing, sitting, or lying down, each one can challenge various muscle groups while helping a child become aware of his body and how it efficiently functions.
It Refines Balance and Coordination Balance is a key element of yoga. Balancing poses were created to promote mental and physical poise, as mental clarity and stability emerge from the effort of trying the poses. Even if a child has difficulty standing on one foot, she learns mental and physical balance if she can stay calm when she falls and when she gets up to try again. As children learn to improve their physical balance, they will be filled with a sense of accomplishment. Coordination is also closely tied to balance and promotes overall dexterity. Some yoga teachers and occupational therapists use finger yoga and other specialized techniques to help children with gross and fine motor coordination.
It Develops Focus and Concentration The act of practicing poses encourages children to clear their mind and focus on the effort. As a result of this single focus to achieve a particular pose or stay balanced, yoga helps children to focus and concentrate in school and get better grades, several studies note.
It Boosts Self-Esteem and Confidence Yoga helps to instill confidence and to bring learning to children on an experiential level, Enneking says. “It helps to provide building blocks for the future. It is our responsibility to develop our children’s sense of wonder and to give them a strong sense of self so they know where they belong in this world and can contribute to making their community a better place.” Yoga teaches them to persevere, be patient, and work toward their goals. A yoga teacher can only offer guidance; it is the child who has to work to succeed. Therefore, when a child masters a pose, it gives him confidence and self-esteem. Enneking often describes kids’ yoga as “prehabilitation,” a proactive action to ward off instability or sickness; yoga also provides tools for practicing compassion, mindfulness, generosity, focus, strength, and flexibility.
It Strengthens the Mind-Body Connection Yoga helps kids achieve a sound mind in a sound body by exercising the physical body and calming the mental spirit. “As parents we want our children to act and behave with mindfulness and with compassion, to be brave, to know love and happiness, and to find inner peace,” De Collibus says. “Since the modern world moves very, very fast for children, it’s not long before they feel all kinds of pressure (personal, parental, social) to keep up with everyone around them. Yoga functions as a release valve that alleviates pressure and as a foundation to nurture and develop a resilient and resourceful body, mind, and spirit,” she says.
Yoga is beneficial to children of all ages, but it has been found to be particularly so for kids with special needs. Studies have shown that yoga benefits children with autism and ADHD. NPR has reported that researchers surveyed teachers at a Bronx public school that had a daily yoga program and found that the program reduced kids’ aggressive behavior, social withdrawal, and hyperactivity, compared with a control group of kids with autism who did not practice yoga. Kristie Patten Koenig, Ph.D., an associate professor of occupational therapy at New York University who led the study, says that yoga was effective because it seemed to play to the strengths of kids with autism while also reducing stress. Autism Key, an autism support website, says that yoga helps address kids’ heightened anxiety, poor motor coordination, and weak self-regulation, something that otherwise is very difficult to do.
Parents may notice how yoga benefits their kids, but the best judges are the kids themselves. Children who have practiced yoga tell teachers and parents that they are able to concentrate better during the day, focus better on their activities, and pay attention to their tasks — all the finest endorsements.