YOGA WITH CHILDREN
Many yogis and yoginis talk about their yoga practice suffering once little ones arrive on the scene. And while we have no doubt that's the case, there's no reason your yoga practice needs to stay separate from parenting!
We're all aware of the benefits of yoga, and many of these resonate for children as well. Aside from generally helping children move and stay healthy (and decrease screen time!), yoga has been shown to decrease mental health challenges that children face, such as anxiety. Yoga can also help with self regulating behaviour, and is also a good way for children to learn to engage in a non-competitive activity, as many of the physical movement-based activities that children are offered are competitive sports.
Children have so much fantastic energy, but sometimes they have trouble guiding that energy in one purposeful direction, and rather seem to be "bouncing off the walls". School teachers that use yoga find it helps bring an overall balance to the classroom - energising children who are tired, and calming children who are erratically energetic. It also helps children build focus and concentration - especially poses that require balancing - which is of course invaluable in the classroom.
Yoga is a wonderful way to create body awareness in children - learning the names of all the parts of the body (which also helps their language development), fostering a sense of ownership and agency over their own body, and how to use and isolate certain limbs and muscular contractions in different ways. One of the best things about doing yoga with children is the opportunity to develop their gross motor skills and coordination by designing ways for them to cross the body's midline and use both the left and right sides of the brain which is crucial in their developmental process.
Alright, so we know it's beneficial - but how do you actually engage the kids to stay on the mat (or anywhere in the general vicinity)?! Here are a few tips, ideas and things to be aware of when doing yoga with the kids:
- Get creative. Leading children in a yoga sequence is a great way for you to practice describing poses without just using their names - or creating more fun, engaging, kid-friendly names! Warrior 2 could be made more exciting by imagining you're holding a bow and arrow, and you have to aim forwards as you draw the arrow slowly back. Upwards Facing Dog could involve tipping the head all the way back and opening the mouth to catch the cherries falling from the imaginary tree above! If you find this challenging, there are many resources available online to help, such as decks of cards depicting an animal pose on each card which children can arrange into sequences themselves. Release expectations of perfect alignment and enjoy the shapes your mini-me is making!
- Be aware of attention spans. If you manage to engage the kids for ten or even five minutes, well done! Every little bit helps, and it's perfectly normal for their focus, and bodies, to wander off! Some children might be excited to flip the roles, so you could ask them to play the part of the 'yoga teacher' instead. This is great for their confidence and independence, as well as language development when they have to describe poses and name different parts of the body. They'll probably impress you with some of the poses they create out of thin air!
- Be noisy! Although the traditional yoga we're used to is mostly practiced in silence, kids will be far more interested if there's some engaging ways to make sound. Every animal pose can have it's own correlating sound, such as making a hiss when you're in Cobra pose, 'moo'-ing or 'miaow'-ing in Cat Cow, or turning a forward fold into an elephant snorting as it lowers its trunk. Not only does this benefit language development for the really little ones (by mimicking the sounds), it also is a way of guiding children when to breathe without actually seeming instructional. You might also like to integrate simple songs to keep children engaged - 'The Wheels on the Bus' tune can be adapted to fit nearly any occasion, for instance: "The yogis on the mat go up and down, up and down, up and down" etc.
- But also integrate quiet, still, restful moments. Visualisation is great for this - you could tell the children you're going to play the Growing game, where they basically start as a seed and grow into a big flower. Describe each stage slowly, with lots of small details and cues - the seed starts curled up in a tight ball on the ground, then starts to spread into a seedling, then maybe one hand/leaf starts to lift out of the ground, and then the stalk starts sloooowly rising up to the sunlight and they go from crouching to standing tall, spreading all their petals/limbs. Children will often follow your atmospheric cues as well, so if you're whispering or speaking in a hushed tone they will quieten down so as to listen.
- Be safe. There are certain poses little developing bodies shouldn't be doing - while children are daredevils, take care if they're attempting to push themselves into "advanced" yoga poses. Yoga with children should be fluid and full of movement - static yin poses that are held too long, or pushing a stretch too far can be damaging to developing bodies. So keep it flowing!
- Cross that midline as much as possible! This does wonders for children's hand eye coordination and for things like writing and drawing across the page and sitting cross legged. Incorporate lots of yoga that involves windmill arms, side body stretches or standing wide legged and touching the toes with the opposite hand.
- Laugh! Release those endorphins!
- Try partner yoga. There are lots of great partner yoga poses that can be done with an adult and child, from ones taught in Mums & Bubs style yoga classes to more acro-yoga-inspired poses. You could even get some weight-bearing exercise by pretending to be the big monkey while the little monkey clings to you in Chair pose - get creative! And enjoy the hug therapy!
- Be flexible (pun intended!). Yoga doesn't have to be on a mat, in a certain space, with incense wafting around and soothing harp music playing through the speakers. While that sounds relaxing, when you add kids into the mix that just isn't realistic. Yoga can be anywhere! In the car? Do facial yoga and head/neck exercises during a game of Simon Says. In the garden? Create a game of doing low lunges all the way over to the watering can, like a crouching tiger. At the shops? See who can stand up the tallest, like there's a puppet string pulling up from the crown of your head - then maybe the 'puppeteer' starts to pull at the strings attached to the shoulder, knee, elbow etc. Bedtime? Downward dog walk down the passage towards the bathroom, then stand on tip toes and keep your eyes fixed on a spot on the ceiling while brushing your teeth!
- Let your own practice be inspired. To teach is to learn, and by teaching children you might ignite your own inner child and sense of fun in the poses, and work those elements of adventure and fearlessness into your own, regular-adult yoga practice!