Originating in India and around for thousands of years, yoga and its multitude of mental and physical benefits that stem from dynamic movements, maintaining precise poses or “asanas,” and deep breathing and meditation, has become a quiet revolution in the U.S. From celebrated centers like Kripalu in western Massachusetts to Colorado’s Shambhala Mountain Center, to the in-home class in remote, tiny Talkeetna, Alaska, the practice of yoga opens a world of increased strength, balance, flexibility, and concentration to its loyal practitioners. With offerings of Hatha, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, Kundalini , and Anusara yoga, adults choose from a variety of styles and intensities that are known to both relax and energize in the same practice session.
For children, lives crammed with unrelenting schoolwork, competitive sports, afterschool jobs, extracurricular clubs and lessons, and other 21st century expectations and stresses can fling them far from the kind of “centering” yoga provides, and from which untold benefits can emanate. Even very young children experience stress as byproducts of their parents’ and older siblings’ busy lives, and increased expectations placed on them to excel at school, after school, and in sports.
Sometimes, without a safe place and means to express themselves, anxiety, depression, falling grades, and behavioral problems can result, with concerned parents turning to strong options like prescription medication to help them manage their daily lives.
“Young children already have such busy lives. Learning to play and relax is not number one anymore,” said Heidi Audet, co-owner of Chill Yoga in Lewiston, Maine. “One of the things they learn to do in yoga is come together in a safe environment, no ridicule or shame, focusing on peace and stillness.”
Where adults learn and can master a range of “asanas,” with Sanskrit names like surya namaskara (sun salutation), adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), and bhujangasana (cobra pose), children’s attention spans are much shorter. Their penchant for moving and talking are often greater, however, so simply encouraging them to move and bark as a dog, or slither and hiss as a snake, or shine like the sun, can gently acclimate them to the practice with all of its benefits. With stress release a key element in yoga both for adults and children, vocalizing animal sounds as they pose provides a fun and easy outlet for children. What’s more, identifying with animals, plants, and other elements found in nature fosters a sense oneness with all living and natural things, and a respect for the planet they will one day inherit.
In many adult yoga classes, instructors talk about taking the practice to the world outside the studio door and applying it to other facets of their lives. For children, though perhaps unspoken, the charge is the same, with results that may include increased focus in school, better self-esteem, self-discipline, a sense of personal achievement, respect for their bodies, creativity, compassion, and cooperation–not the arduous competition other sports or exercise programs may promote that pits friend against friend.
According to Audet, one of her young students who suffered from anxiety attacks prior to taking yoga classes has learned to apply the deep breathing and relaxation techniques taught in the studio to tense situations in school, with positive results.
For 4-year-old Danika DeMayo, another student in Audet’s class, training began early at home alongside her mother and is high on her weekly agenda. Asked if she ever tires during the 45-minute studio practice, the young student exclaimed, “I can do this all day!” – and clearly intends to.
While not as ubiquitous as adult yoga, more and more studios, health clubs, community centers, and schools are offering children’s yoga, and requesting it where it has not yet taken hold is a good way to develop interest.