Childhood today is filled with challenges, stressors and obstacles that can be overwhelming for parents and children alike. We want to support our kids and keep them safe and healthy, but without overprotecting, over-medicating or stigmatizing them. Yoga offers families an effective tool to address many of the most difficult concerns during the school age and adolescent years. Unlike medication, yoga is a lifelong support system that can alleviate current problems as well as build resilience for facing future challenges. While yoga’s impact on stress reduction and physical health is well known, there is a larger scope of wellness concerns that this safe and effective practice can help your child overcome.
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Yoga deliberately teaches focus skills, with an emphasis on helping children recognize when their mind is wandering, and bringing it back to the task at hand. Consistent practice reduces the stress that we know exacerbates ADHD symptoms and contributes to a reduction in impulsive behavior. An often overlooked benefit of yoga is that it gives children movement-based practices that they can do on their own to channel hyperactive tendencies. Instead of being told to “calm down,” kids with ADHD can move in more appropriate, socially acceptable ways that leave them focused, alert and engaged, rather than sedated or frustrated.
Generalized anxiety is a reality for many of our children: They are exposed to so many of the world’s challenges, often well before they’ve developed the perspective to deal with them. Yoga teaches students to notice and identify their feelings and to use movement and breathing practices to calm their sympathetic nervous system, literally reducing the sensations of anxiety in the body. This is an empowering practice that doesn’t require you to even understand why you’re getting anxious!
According to the 2004 Sleep in America poll, more than two-thirds of American children experience problems getting enough sleep. Fatigue increases our sensitivity to negative emotions, reduces our tolerance of other people and makes all of the things we need to do seem harder and more overwhelming. It also plays a large role in learning challenges. Practices such as restorative yoga and yoga nidra (a deep relaxation based on a body scan), are very effective at helping kids fall asleep more easily. The overall reduction in stress and anxiety that comes with regular practice also can help decrease nighttime waking.
It’s impossible to ignore the substantial rates of childhood obesity in our society. Yoga offers physical exercise that is safe, accessible to anyone and non-competitive. Kids who aren’t athletic have the opportunity to feel successful at a physical activity and can learn to embrace their bodies as strong and capable. Yoga doesn’t come with the pressure that performance-based activities such as dance, gymnastics or team sports do, and this can make all the difference for a child who is self-conscious about exercise.
Yoga teaches us to see ourselves as capable of things we never imagined ourselves doing. It asks us to practice being the best version of ourselves. This can go a long way towards helping children feel a sense of self-worth and expand their sense of what is possible for them.
When kids can’t make sense of their own negative emotions, some of them turn to bullying. Yoga in a group setting establishes a framework of collaborative community and fosters healthy peer relationships. Partner and group yoga activities offer opportunities to see your relationship to others in a new way, and many children’s yoga programs incorporate non-violent communication strategies. Yoga can also help a child who is being bullied find his voice, recognize his own value as a person and build the strength to ask for help.
Jennifer Cohen Harper is a leading voice in the children’s yoga and mindfulness community, and the author of “Little Flower Yoga for Kids: A Yoga and Mindfulness Program to Help Your Child Improve Attention and Emotional Balance.” She is the founder and director of Little Flower Yoga, a national organization based in New York, and The School Yoga Project, which brings yoga and mindfulness to schools nation wide.