Skip to main content

Today's Family Magazine

Yoga can help kids calm nerves and gain focus

By Nina Polien Light

Jeffrey Bucks of Painesville has sensory processing overload disorder, a condition on the autism spectrum.  The 11-year-old also suffers from severe anxiety.  When his mother, Debbie, learned practicing yoga helps individuals manage anxiety, she registered him for private sessions at Awaken Yoga in Mentor, where he flourished.

Now he attends a yoga workshop that includes special needs and typically developing children.  The weekly, 45-minute sessions teach Jeffrey how to use breathing techniques to regroup when he finds himself in unfamiliar surroundings or an uncomfortable situation.

“If he gets upset or has an episode at school, he knows to try calm-body breathing,” his mother explains.  “We also do some yoga at home, if that’s what it takes for him to calm down. We have a box of cards (printed) with different yoga poses or meditation techniques.”

Jennifer Langsdale, owner of Awaken Yoga, points to the case of a 7-year-old boy who is upset about his parents’ impending divorce.

“Sometimes, at the end of class, we do a happy memory,” she says. “Things were stressful at home and (this child) didn’t want to go to class.  But he remembered being in a pumpkin patch and by the end of class, his state of mind was better. Now, when he has a moment when he may be upset, (his mom says), ‘Let’s breathe and think about that pumpkin patch.’”

In simple terms, traditional yoga is an ancient Indian practice that promotes balancing the body’s nadis, or energetic pathways, through movement and breathing.  Asana, the approach favored in the United States today, focuses on maintaining certain postures that benefit the nervous system, musculoskeletal system and state of mind.

Yoga has been popular with adults in the United States for quite a while, but many parents don’t recognize its value for children.  Judith Eugene, founder of Loving Hands Yoga and Reiki in Cleveland Heights, says yoga is a holistic approach to wellness that combines physical, mental and emotional practices.  It builds strength, flexibility and stamina as well as social and behavioral skills.

“We can teach kids that staying on their own yoga mat is their own personal space and that what they do with their bodies can adversely affect someone else, if they’re not careful,” Eugene says.  “Other sports and dance offer a lot of body awareness, balance, flexibility and strength—which yoga also does—but mindfulness and learning how to relax is probably the most critical skill yoga can teach young kids.”

Children can be introduced to yoga shortly after birth.  Langsdale teaches a “baby and me” class for mothers and their infants.  She invites moms to lay their babies on a favorite blanket.  As Langsdale guides the women through poses, she may encourage them to bend down and tickle their children’s tummies, place their babies on their side while holding warrior pose or massage the little ones’ knees while singing a tune.

Studios take different approaches to introducing yoga, but certified instructors agree that teaching children is much different than teaching adults.  Around age 3 or 4, most children are capable of staying in one place and listening to an instructor’s prompt, Eugene says. She sometimes guides her young charges through a pretend walk in the forest, where they “meet” animals and perform yoga poses that correspond with that animal.  Langsdale says kids may hold toy dogs or lions, bark or roar while learning the downward dog or lion pose postures. Age-appropriate games, imagined scenarios and craft projects are often incorporated into yoga sessions until children become teenagers and are better equipped to handle a traditional yoga class.

Both Eugene and Langsdale emphasize the benefits of yoga for the entire family.

“Some parents will bring kids to a kids’ yoga class, but they won’t stay and take the adult class going on in the other room,” Langsdale says.  “It’s so important for parents to participate in yoga or some kind of mindfulness because they’re just as stressed as their children.  Kids learn good—and some bad—behaviors through their parents.”

Awaken Yoga

Loving Hands Yoga and Reiki