Within the last century or so, the Eastern practices of yoga have been involved in various ways within the Western culture of North America. In recent years however there have been a number of participants in yoga classes that differ from the “yogi” found contorted into poses and chanting the ancient sutras. Yoga for children is a fairly new concept. Yoga for toddlers up through elementary aged children (roughly ages 2-9) centers on utilizing the benefits that have been found for adults, in a child-friendly adapted form. While adults and children exist within two different frames of mind, focus and abilities, some researchers feel that the benefits of breathing, meditation and physical poses does not only apply to a certain age group. I was interested in researching yoga practice for children between the ages of two and nine years old. This age is a key time in development for children. They are constantly growing and learning in multiple settings and modes every day.
As a part of studying child development, learning more about the activities some are participating in is important. Yoga is something some young children have been participating in increased numbers recently, and it is important to learn the ways in which they are affected, as well as influencing modern yoga practices.
Why Should Children Practice Yoga?
The lives of young children in North America have become increasingly busy and stressful due to endless scheduled activities, play-dates, and school. Our culture is a constant buzz of events, appointments and meetings that has even become a major aspect of the lives of many children. These busy and often hectic schedules can be complicated by the typical stressors of family, financial or emotional struggles resulting in anxiety-filled young children in need of relaxation and relief. Researcher Archer (2005) claims that yoga can allow children to focus on their mind, practice breathing techniques, physical movement, and relaxation. If children face as many stressors in their environment as schools, parents and medical experts suggest (McGonigal 2006), should efforts be made to help alleviate some of this stress by implementing these yogic concepts into the every day environments, possibly including physical education classes, of children?
Researcher Toscano (2010) claims yoga benefits children, especially advocating for the inclusion of yoga into the school physical education system. It is a way to integrate movement into a widely spread epidemic of decreased daily activity in which children are experiencing. There are multiple factors involved in the concept that children have become less physically active today. For example, many children are only involved in physical activity within the Physical Education classes. A number of children do not receive any opportunities to stretch and move their bodies throughout the day.
Video games, television, movies, and the internet may play a prominent role in some children’s after-school activities. Often, children are not pushed to be more physically active, and instead are allowed to sit with their technological entertainment for hours. This promotes a poor outlook on the importance of physical activity (Santangelo 2009). Video games and television may offer a simple solution for filling after-school hours, but they do not provide children with situations in which to move their bodies.
Many children may avoid, resist, and simply lack motivation to be involved in physical activities. School fitness curriculums often include sports-only models which put emphasis on ability and opposition with others, enforcing competition among young children (Stanec 2010). Yoga is proposed as an alternative to this competitive focus in supplying a form of physical activity that allows children to participate at their own ability levels. Researcher Stanec (2010) argues that without the pressure of “winning” placed on children within physical activities, they are more likely to be significantly involved, as well as explore their abilities and bodies to learn their own individual capabilities. Yoga specifically helps young children interact in a physical activity that focuses on the self, without pressure or comparison to others.
When yoga is offered to children as an option that is along the same lines of soccer, gymnastics, baseball, etc it presents an alternative to the competition and rivalry some sports activities can create. Yoga in its physical sense is a solitary activity in which children are not pressured to compete or compare themselves with peers. It is based on gentle exercises and poses that instead of creating a stressful environment, aim to repel it.
How are Children Practicing?
For children, the focus when practicing yoga is not on perfection of poses or techniques but on relaxation and quieting of the mind.
In children’s yoga, the focus is on an element of play. If an instructor were to lead a class for children the same way they would for adults, the class would last no longer than five minutes. Children are not adults. Children do not function in the same manner emotionally, physically or behaviorally. Children have shorter attention spans, limited control over body movements, and a more ego-centric frame of mind (Santangelo 2009). Yoga instructors for young children approach their instruction in a much different way.
. Researcher Santangelo (2009) explains that instructors who offer classes for children keep classes shorter for the sake of the children’s attention. This is usually around 15-25 minutes for many six and seven year olds, but sometimes longer for children 8-10. Also related to time constraints is the idea that poses are moved through at a much faster pace than during adult yoga and puts a focus on creativity and imagination rather than total concentration and focus. Researcher McGonigal explains that often yoga teachers for children will incorporate a theme or story to connect poses (2006). This is done as a part of the imaginative aspect of children’s yoga, to keep children interested and with a goal in mind as they are participating. It is a lot to ask of many very young children to stay focused for long periods of time. For this reason, yoga classes are shorter, poses are not held for as long, and the approach to each pose or breathing exercise is in a playful way that utilizes the way children’s minds work instead of attempting to manipulate or control them to work as adults’ (McGonigal 2006).
The aesthetics of the class need to be modified in order to best benefit children. If someone were to walk into a kindergarten, or first grade classroom they would not find rows of desks, blank walls, or bare project areas. They would see colors, shapes, patterns, pleasantly arranged tables and sitting areas, and probably hear talking or music. These things capture the attention of children. Just as though you would not plop a five-year-old into a college classroom and expect them to pay attention to a lecture, yoga classes are approached in a similar manner. Instructors opt for neutral colors and soft music to calm and relax children. Children require a safe and familiar place for any kind of successful class or lesson and yoga acts on that same idea. Soft music and lighting, opportunities to be silly and imaginative play are all aspects of yoga that help to create a relaxing and supportive environment in which children can experience and explore a varied version of adult yoga.
Yoga classes for young children are found to have an animal approach to their positions and breathing (Toscano 2008). Children listen carefully to interesting stories that are told that will put them into a frame of mind where they are using their imagination to breathe as if they are a certain animal and respond to imagery such as picturing a worry literally flying away or writing it down on a piece of paper and ripping it up (Santangelo 2009)
Animals, stories, music, dancing, and even a theme for each class all help in allowing children to connect to the activities they are doing and responding positively to the instruction, allowing them to delve deeper into the motivations behind the practice of yoga.
What Might Children Get From Yoga?
In the physical sense and within the Western viewpoint, yoga is viewed as a more health and exercise genre. Researchers like McGonigal (2009), Toscano (2008) and Stanec (2010) support this perspective by saying it offers some benefits for children. Specific benefits may be the development of muscle, better posture, improved breathing, enhanced digestion, better circulation, a relaxed nervous system, and a fortified immune system (Toscano 2008). Some children who shy away from extremely physical sports and activities could find similar benefits from the less demanding practice of yoga for their growing bodies.
Yoga is also claimed (Santangelo (2009) to be responsible for helping individuals, including children with their mental and emotional state of mind. Yoga centers on a clearing and quieting of the mind, and many people find these practices helpful in their lives outside of a yoga studio. Yoga classes for children also have a large focus of relaxation and breathing techniques. The researcher, Toscano says that practicing yoga can help children to learn self control and “instill a sense of peace in their daily lives” (16). With such a large emphasis on understanding the self and relaxation it makes sense that they techniques would carry over into the child’s life outside of the yoga studio. Toscano goes on to explain that yoga can also help inward focus, self expression and imagination in children’s every day life.
Another possible benefit of yoga for children, which correlates with the mental and emotional aspect, is that of relaxation and stress relief. Children face a great amount of stress in their lives between home, school, peers, etc. Some researchers like Toscano (2008) feel that yoga, as seen in the benefits for adults can teach children skills to use in times of stress as well as provide a time and space to release some of these pent up frustrations. According to Stanec (2010), children who practice yoga report decreased feelings of helplessness and aggression after practicing yoga, and goes on to explain that students may be able to learn ways to control nervousness and anger.
A fourth component included in the research behind yoga for children is that of socialization. Toscano (2008) reports that since children may become more comfortable with themselves, they may be more likely to reach out to peers and facilitate relationships. Researcher McGonigal (2009) explains that through the other inner and self discovery benefits of yoga children can learn to become great listeners and comforters. This most likely connects with the fact that when children are stressed they act out not only with adults and themselves, but to their peers and friends as well. If children can learn relaxation techniques, breathing exercises and inner calmness that they may utilize in times of stress they may be less likely to take out frustrations and aggression on others, therefore increasing the number of positive interactions and relationships.
A second connection to this idea lies in the fact that yoga is an individual practice (Toscano 2008) in which children must learn to accept that their own abilities are different and separate from those of others. With this acceptance of self, comes the acceptance of others which may hopefully allow for better decision making during confrontations.
Within modern yoga in Western culture has emerged the idea of utilizing the basics of its practices in order to reach out to the youngest of our population. With an increase in environmental stressors, obesity, lack of attention spans and various other factors involved in the lives of children emerges an attempt to use yoga as a source for relief. Research has shown that those who practice yoga can gain physical strength, as well as an understanding of self through postures, poses and breathing techniques. Yoga studios and classes are beginning to reach out to our ever increasingly busy children in order to alleviate and provide benefits for young children. Even school systems have begun incorporating this idea into their physical education departments. This may provide opportunities for children whose families can not pay for studio classes to experience yoga and the possible benefits. With the combination of worry over childhood obesity and the consequences of stress build up, yoga is appearing to be an alternative many parents, child care advocates and the children themselves may become increasingly interested in.
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