Discover how teaching your kids yoga can help them develop in ways traditional team sports can’t.
By Diana Ballon (Canadian Living)
Luka used to be a perfectionist. “Everything had to be perfect,” says Angie Continisio of her now 10-year-old son. “He would erase things in his homework until the page was almost shredded.”
It was only through meditation, guided imagery and yoga that Luka began to make gradual changes.
He learned that he didn’t have to be perfect, and that he could accept things the way they were and be OK with it, says Continisio, owner of Kids Butterfly Yoga in Montreal. Luka’s frustration and tantrums also waned.
Continisio isn’t the only parent singing the praises of the calming power of yoga. A recent literature review on the therapeutic effects of yoga for children, published in the journal Pediatric Physical Therapy, attests to a number of benefits. One study described yoga as a mind-body therapy able to reduce the “physical and mental tension” created by stress. Another report showed that yoga improves kids’ focus, concentration and memory, while a study of kids in group homes suggested that yoga helped improve their appetites, sleep and overall well-being.
It’s no surprise, then, that many elementary schools, after-school programs, camps, day-care centres and formerly adult-only yoga studios are now embracing yoga as a way to calm down kids and teens, and to reduce stress and, in some cases, anxiety – which is the most common mental health problem among kids.
Mind and body benefits of yoga for kids
What makes yoga so effective for kids who suffer from stress and anxiety is that its tension-busting techniques go beyond the physical. “Yoga is awareness,” says Dr. Swami Shankardev Saraswati, an established yoga teacher in Australia.
Focusing on physical postures (asanas), breathing (pranayama) and the repetition of mantras (such as “Om namah shivaya,” meaning “I bow to my true inner self”) can improve kids’ and teens’ memory and concentration.
But what about helping children feel more confident and have better self-esteem? “You manage that by having a strong mind,” says Saraswati, speaking not only as a yoga teacher, but also as a mind-body therapist and medical doctor. “Yoga alone is not enough,” he says, adding that it is part of a lifestyle of connection, or “the yoga of relationships.”
This is actually a simple concept. For example, in a perfect world we wouldn’t just drive our kids to their yoga classes – we would practise with them and be mindful of the way we live our lives, being present, loving and engaged as parents. “When you feel calm, when you feel safe and peaceful: This is where the real learning happens,” says Sherry LeBlanc, director of Yoga 4 Kids, a Toronto program that teaches yoga and meditation to kids of all ages and abilities, including those with special needs.
Have kids focus on meditation
LeBlanc says a good yoga teacher creates an environment in which there is no competition; kids can try things without being judged or excluded and are guided to practise with their thoughts focused on the moment, rather than what they’re going to eat for dinner that night or whether they’ll be ready for an exam the next day. It’s a setting far removed from the distractions of TV, the Internet, cellphones and nonstop activities, not to mention all the social pressures and choices confronted by teens.
The same holds true of meditation. “In meditation, it’s difficult to sit with ourselves. We’re constantly looking for distractions,” LeBlanc says. The stillness of meditation helps challenge this.
Eleven-year-old Carly Schwind, a regular participant in LeBlanc’s program, puts these meditative tricks to good use outside the classroom. “If I have an argument with my sister, I go into my room and lie on the bed and meditate,” she says. And when she had to have blood drawn at the doctor one day, she used yogic breathing to counter her fears. “Yoga gives my kids a foundation of calmness,” adds her dad, Roger.
What it’s like inside a kids’ yoga class
Some parents new to kids’ yoga expect the practice to look like it does in adult classes. “Many parents will drop their kids off and say, ‘John is so hyper. He needs to do yoga,'”says Continisio. “They expect the kids to be all quiet and still.”
But although a typical class incorporates yoga postures, controlled and conscious breathing, and some form of meditation, you’ll also find young children barking like dogs, meowing like cats or roaring like lions. In a class taught by Toronto instructor Livia Berius, children may begin by playing “yoga tag” or games in which they run or march and then touch, say, a foot to a foot, or a knee to a knee, or dance and then freeze into different postures. It’s a way for them to release their energy and connect to different parts of their bodies.
A playful approach
With kids, the emphasis is often on play – on doing postures derived from nature and animals, such as crow, butterfly and tree poses. And even for more advanced teens, such as Carly Schwind’s 14-year-old sister, Madeline, it’s not necessarily about perfecting these postures or forcing a stretch. “Yoga isn’t competitive like other sports,” she says. “Everyone is accepted for their own abilities.”
“For kids, yoga is a very social activity,” says Berius. Saraswati concurs. “With children, it’s more about having fun and engaging with family…rather than yoga as an introverting practice, taking you within [as it is with adults].”
At the end of a yoga class, a brief meditation or relaxation period will look different depending on the age of the children. At a yoga camp where Berius teaches, kids make their own relaxation forts with the blankets, mats and bolsters around them, and aromatherapy and massage are incorporated into the routine.
Continisio helps kids learn the sensation of tightening and relaxing different parts of their bodies by having them squeeze marbles under their toes and stress balls in their hands. In other settings, a class might wrap up with a quiet “corpse pose” (for which they lie flat on the ground), with soft music playing.
Bringing yoga home
While there are many advantages to working with an experienced instructor in a group, yoga and meditation can also be practised at home, once you have had some initial training, or with the help of a yoga DVD or book. If you have young kids, try making yoga a family practice. Choose a space in your house where kids there won’t be distractions and a time when it’s quiet. It could be at the beginning of the day, before bedtime, or for 20 to 30 minutes when there’s nothing else going on. Then set the stage – dim the lights, put on some soft music – and begin.
Finding a class that fits
Before signing your wee one up for a yoga or meditation class, first make sure he or she has a glimmer of interest. “The child needs to want to be there,” says Sherry LeBlanc, director of the Yoga 4 Kids program in Toronto. If they’re willing to try it, look for a class that’s taught by someone who has been specially trained to work with children.
UGOT Active Kids is excited to introduce a new program for the youngest students. “Active Toddlers” is designed for the specific age group of 18-36 months. The main objective of this program is to provide toddlers with a variety of activities to keep them interested and add more fun while ensuring that they enjoy all the benefits of physical activities. “Active Toddlers” classes combine elements of dance, music, yoga and creative movement. The focus can be shifted towards specific elements based on individual preferences.
Toddlers will develop physical skills including coordination, rhythm, flexibility, balance and spatial awareness. But they won’t know that – they’ll just know how much fun they’re having! The program will be launched in selected locations during summer 2014.
Please stay tuned for more information and a special interview with the program creator – Jeanette Hedley.
The Corsage Project, working in partnership with the Children’s Aid Foundation, is a non-profit program in Toronto dedicated to giving the authentic prom experience to young women and men who would not otherwise have the opportunity to celebrate with their peers due to the high cost of formal wear. Through their scholarship program, the Corsage Project also helps local high school graduates achieve their post-secondary goals.
This year two of UGOT Active Kids team members (Veronica Zielinska and Shirlee Hiebert) volunteered with the Corsage Project and supported this wonderful cause.
Veronica Zielinska sharing her experience:
“This has been my second year volunteering with The Corsage Project. I invited Shirlee to join me this year and she was thrilled to be a part of this event. We had an amazing time, helping a girl who would have otherwise not have had the financial means or opportunity to pick a prom dress for that special day, and feel like a princess at The Boutique Ball. It’s a place and time where your background, age, colour, or religion don’t matter as the occasion connects you as two people over something fun and exciting. This was an amazing opportunity to share my own prom experiences with a young girl getting ready for her special day.”
When most adults think about exercise, they imagine working out in the gym on a treadmill or lifting weights. But for kids, exercise means playing and being physically active. Kids exercise when they have gym class at school, during recess, at dance class or soccer practice, while riding bikes, or when playing tag.
The Many Benefits of Exercise
Everyone can benefit from regular exercise. Kids who are active will:
- Have stronger muscles and bones
- Have a leaner body because exercise helps control body fat
- Be less likely to become overweight
- Decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- Possibly lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels
- Have a better outlook on life
Besides enjoying the health benefits of regular exercise, kids who are physically fit sleep better and are better able to handle physical and emotional challenges — from running to catch a bus to studying for a test.
The Three Elements of Fitness
If you’ve ever watched kids on a playground, you’ve seen the three elements of fitness in action when they:
- Run away from the kid who’s “it” (endurance)
- Cross the monkey bars (strength)
- Bend down to tie their shoes (flexibility)
Parents should encourage their kids to do a variety of activities so that they can work on all three elements.
Endurance is developed when kids regularly engage in aerobic activity. During aerobic exercise, the heart beats faster and a person breathes harder. When done regularly and for extended periods of time, aerobic activity strengthens the heart and improves the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to all its cells.
Aerobic exercise can be fun for both adults and kids. Examples of aerobic activities include:
- Inline skating[list-child icon="fa-rocket" style="square" color="green"]Soccer
Improving strength doesn’t have to mean lifting weights. Although some kids benefit from weight lifting, it should be done under the supervision of an experienced adult who works with them.
But most kids don’t need a formal weight-training program to be strong. Push-ups, stomach crunches, pull-ups, and other exercises help tone and strengthen muscles. Kids also incorporate strength activities in their play when they climb, do a handstand, or wrestle.
Stretching exercises help improve flexibility, allowing muscles and joints to bend and move easily through their full range of motion. Kids look for opportunities every day to stretch when they try to get a toy just out of reach, practice a split, or do a cartwheel.
The Sedentary Problem
The percentage of overweight and obese kids and teens has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Although many factors contribute to this epidemic, children are becoming more sedentary. In other words, they’re sitting around a lot more than they used to.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8- to 18-year-olds watch about 4.5 hours of television a day. And the average kid spends 7 hours on all screen media combined (TV, videos, and DVDs, computer time outside of schoolwork, and video games).
One of the best ways to get kids to be more active is to limit the amount of time spent in sedentary activities, especially watching TV or playing video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends these limits on screen time:
- Kids under age 2 should watch no TV at all
- Kids older than 2 should be restricted to just 1-2 hours a day of quality programming
How Much Exercise Is Enough?
Parents should make sure that their kids get enough exercise. So, how much is enough? Kids and teens get 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) offers these activity guidelines for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers:
Minimum Daily Activity: No specific requirements
Comments: Physical activity should encourage motor development
Minimum Daily Activity: 1½ hours
Comments: 30 minutes planned physical activity AND 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)
Minimum Daily Activity: 2 hours
Comments: 60 minutes planned physical activity AND 60 minutes unstructured physical activity (free play)
Minimum Daily Activity: 1 hour or more
Comments: Break up into bouts of 15 minutes or more
Infants and young children should not be inactive for prolonged periods of time — no more than 1 hour unless they’re sleeping. And school-age children should not be inactive for periods longer than 2 hours.
Raising Fit Kids
Combining regular physical activity with a healthy diet is the key to a healthy lifestyle.
Here are some tips for raising fit kids:
- Help your kids participate in a variety of age-appropriate activities.
- Establish a regular schedule for physical activity.
- Incorporate activity into daily routines, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Embrace a healthier lifestyle yourself, so you’ll be a positive role model for your family.
- Keep it fun, so you can count on your kids to come back for more.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2012