The Benefits of Yoga for Toddlers, Kids, and Teens - By Guest Blogger, Jackie Allen
What is Yoga?
Yoga incorporates various body postures/poses that are designed to build strength and flexibility, breathing techniques that can calm or stimulate the nervous system, and meditation practices aimed at improving mental and emotional awareness. Yoga can strengthen the body and the mind, in a noncompetitive, accepting environment. One of the main tenets of yoga is that how you feel in a pose is leaps and bounds more important than how the pose looks. Yoga for children is typically more playful than an adult yoga class. Although the structure of a yoga class will differ from child to child and across different ages, in general, children’s yoga can include stories, books, games, arts and crafts, and music. Yoga provides children with a supportive environment, in which to experience playful movement. Research and experience has shown that yoga is highly beneficial for children. Yoga enhances development in the following areas:
Sensory processing skills
Emotional processing skills
How does Yoga Benefit Motor Development?
Yoga affords many tools and opportunities for building muscle strength. In kids' yoga, children learn to use their own body weight to build strength, and they practice poses that isolate specific muscles (e.g. upper back muscles in Locust pose, or “Superman” pose). Yoga also helps to strengthen bones and lubricate joints, making the whole body operate more efficiently.
Yoga teaches children how to hold a pose comfortably – that is, without straining or holding their breath. This action helps to increase flexibility in the targeted muscles. When muscles are more flexible, it is easier for the body to move and it releases tension from joints and muscles. This increased flexibility helps children to find more openness in their bodies, creating a more relaxed body and mind.
Yoga encourages children to use both sides of their bodies, and this ensures that opposing muscle groups are strengthened and stretched equally. Yoga classes typically use postures that move the spine through its full range of motion (flexion, extension, lateral bending, and rotation), and this helps to build strength, stability, and flexibility in the muscles of the trunk. Yoga also provides children with opportunities to use their limbs together or independently, which can help to balance the left and right sides of the brain.
Motor planning is the brain’s ability to create, organize, and complete a sequence of unfamiliar body movements. Yoga improves motor planning by providing children with varied poses and sequences to execute. In kids' yoga, children are given a verbal and visual model (i.e. the teacher models the posture and gives cues about how to enter and exit the posture) or verbal model only (i.e. only verbal instruction is given for a pose). Thus, children are required to motor plan through the movements using their own motor planning system.
How does Yoga Benefit Linguistic Development?
Kids' yoga classes provide children with ample opportunity to practice auditory processing skills. All poses are taught with verbal, and sometimes accompanying visual, information. Children hone their listening skills by practicing yoga.
Since yoga involves various types of movement in many directions, children get functional, naturalistic practice with spatial concepts (e.g. up, down, left, right, etc.) and action concepts (e.g. push, turn, lift, bend, etc.). Children get to embody the preposition or action cued in class – for example, if the teacher tells children to “rotate to the left”, children get to experience what rotating (action) to the left (preposition) feels like. This helps to further the development of positional and action concepts for children. Action and positional concepts are required for children to begin to put words together in phrases or sentences. Yoga provides children with real experience using those terms.
Yoga for kids often involves different types of chanting, voicing, laughing, and/or silly sound effects. This helps children learn how to turn their voice on and off while also engaging in another motor activity. Children also get practice with using the muscles that create speech in fun, playful ways.
How does Yoga Benefit Cognitive Development?
Most children welcome the opportunity to laugh and be silly. Play is incredibly important to a child’s overall development. In fact, play is one of the most important things a young child can do with his/her time. Children learn much easier when they are engaged in play. Play also helps to foster empathy, creativity, and innovation. Play teaches children how to interact with peers and “how the world works.” Play and having fun with movement is an integral part of children’s yoga. Many kids' yoga classes involve some aspect of pretending or imagining, and many poses also incorporate voicing and laughter.
Yoga can improve attention to tasks and increase the time spent engaged with a task. Children are often told to “pay attention,” but the problem is, they may not know how. Yoga provides children with the tools to increase their focus and attention. Yoga can also improve working memory since children have to use their working memory system so much during a yoga class when processing the auditory directions from a teacher. Teachers, parents, and children report better focus at school after initiating a regular yoga routine.
How does Yoga Benefit Social Development?
Yoga provides children with functional practice for social skills. Through yoga, children learn to improve their listening skills. Turn-taking and waiting skills also show improvement. Some yoga poses are held for longer durations of time, and this teaches children how to settle energy while doing something challenging or non-preferred. Children also get practice with setting up and cleaning up their yoga space. In children’s yoga, kids are highly encouraged to set up, and put away, their yoga mat and other props (e.g. blocks, eye pillow, blanket, etc.). Children’s yoga also teaches kids to remain in their personal space and to respect the personal space of others by using yoga mats as a visual boundary cue. Kids' yoga also provides children with opportunities to practice transitioning skills (i.e. shifting from one situation to another) since yoga classes move from pose to pose throughout class. Kids' yoga classes often involve games and arts and crafts, giving children more experience with peer-peer interaction.
How does Yoga Benefit Sensory Development?
Yoga improves a child’s sensory processing skills. Proprioception, the body’s inner GPS system, enables the brain to recognize where a body is in space and how it is moving. Since yoga involves postures in many different positions (e.g. on the belly, on the back, on the feet, on the hands, etc.), children get to “exercise” and strengthen their proprioceptive system. To carry out a yoga pose, a child learns where his hands, feet, and other body parts are and how to move them. When proprioception is stable and steady in the body, coordinated movement improves. Yoga postures that engage the proprioceptive system include flexing, extending, bending, compressing, stretching, pushing, and pulling.
Yoga also improves functioning of the vestibular system. The vestibular system detects balance and movement and the position of the head, eyes, and body relative to the earth. There are many opportunities to strengthen the vestibular system in yoga. Yoga helps children to coordinate the motion of the eyes with the head, therefore improving a child’s equilibrium during movement. Yoga postures that stimulate the vestibular system include rolling, rocking, spinning, elevating the head, and balancing.
How does Yoga Benefit Emotional Development?
Yoga is different than other types of exercise because it directs awareness to the body, breath, and feelings in each posture. Yoga teaches children how to observe their body – for example, how it feels when they move, when they are still, when they breathe, or when they are tense or relaxed. Yoga can reduce anxiety and stress, by increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. your “rest and digest” nervous response) and decreasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. your “fight, flight, or freeze” nervous response). Yoga also helps to improve a child’s self-esteem, since yoga is inclusive and noncompetitive. Yoga also helps children learn to cope with challenging situations in a positive way, since yoga classes involve holding or moving in/out of challenging physical postures.
Yoga is highly beneficial for a child’s motor, cognitive, linguistic, social, sensory, and emotional development. Ideally, yoga would be practiced every day by every person in the household. However, if that is not possible, then try to squeeze in a few short bouts (maybe 10-20 minutes) a few times a week. There are a ton of kids' yoga videos on YouTube. You could also check out local yoga studios for kids' yoga classes. Another option is to use a personalized (aka private) yoga service in your own home. Research has also shown that parents who practice yoga with their child are more likely to feel reduced stress and anxiety. So, grab a yoga mat for you and your child, and get YOUR YOGA ON!
~Namaste. Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT
Jackie Allen is the owner and founder of Lotus Yogis By Jackie LLC, which offers personalized yoga sessions for adults, children of all ages, and individuals with special needs (www.lotusyogisbyjackie.com). In addition to being a certified adult and children’s yoga teacher, Jackie is also a licensed speech-language pathologist. When not teaching yoga, Jackie provides speech therapy at a pediatric, outpatient clinic in Roswell, GA.
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