Practicing Mindfulness and Yoga with Children

by Tracey Maclay

Yoga and mindfulness for children and adults is gaining popularity each day, mostly because parents and teachers are learning that anxiety in children (and themselves, as parents) seems to be growing as our world gets faster in its pace of living.  Not only that, the skills learned in yoga in the early years; calming the mind and being mindful and present, will serve children throughout their whole lives.  

Rewind 20 years ago, when I had my first born, I remember reading a book called, “Buddha Heart Parenting”, to me now, it sounded very much like the ideas in books, such as, the latest mindfulness handbook written by Dr. Diana Korevaar, ‘Mindfulness for mums and dads’.  The only real difference being that that the book I read was based on yoga and Buddhist self-awareness.

The description asserts that this current book is based on ‘ground-breaking science of mindfulness every parent needs by their side.’  Which is kind of funny to me as a yoga teacher, as I thought ‘keeping steady the mind on one point of focus and avoiding other thoughts was called ‘Dharana’ (Sanskrit concept I learnt in my yoga training) but regardless of what you call it, it is all good for us.  

Mindfulness and yoga have assisted my yoga students (children and adults) and myself to better understand our thoughts and emotions, and how they are chemically based. Our thoughts dictate our actions, and with practice, we can learn to monitor our thoughts better.

Growing up, I knew no other way to process my thoughts and feelings, except to act, ‘more often than not’, with my fight-or-flight response. I was being controlled by a tiny gland at the base of my skull called the ‘amygdala’. I would run from situations I felt slightly uncomfortable in or I would fight it verbally. No winners there, obviously.

I have since learned better ways to deal with my emotions through yoga. You can do the same and pass it on to your kids. With this understanding, they will hopefully be better equipped to face challenges and better control negative thoughts and unhelpful ways of dealing with stress. They are, after all, just part of life.

Children as young as those in preschool are showing signs of stress and anxiety, which often manifest in tantrums. Simple, fun breathing techniques can teach them the signs of anxiety, how they feel it, and where they feel it in their body and then learn to do something about it. The movements and poses in yoga also teach mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation practices. Imagine children learning self-regulation!

Here are 5 reasons to practice mindfulness for yourself and with your children:

  •   Mindfulness practices and yoga switches the nervous system over to a calmer state and the bodies stress responses effects the emotions less, anxiety is then reduced.
  • Mindfulness and certain yoga poses increase the child’s ability to focus.   With cognitive control, we have a better chance of being able to concentrate.  Memory, planning and organisation can also be developed.

With a calmer state of mind, we react less with aggression and more with compassion.

  •   Increased emotional self-awareness and emotional regulation. Children become better aware of their bodies’ reactions to stress and can monitor their feelings and adapt better to change.
  •   Fewer conduct and anger management problems and impulsivity. Their relationships and health improve over time as children learn to let go of the negative thoughts and really listen to others.

We practice mindfulness in order to have contentment. If you are not content within yourself, nothing will ever be right in your life.

We are hardwired since our creation to be on alert for bad things to happen and we hold on to these lessons, so we can avoid them again in the future. This has enabled us as a species to survive.

However, we need to understand that this is a built-in ability that we don’t need anymore, and in fact could be damaging to us. We no longer have to be on such a high alert like we were during our cave-dwelling days — it causes us to overreact to anything we might perceive as a threat.

Being on high alert can be exhausting, too. Getting stuck in this mindset makes it harder to see the positive. If left on autopilot, we will never find peace.

Physically, this mindset takes its toll on us over time. High stress levels cause inflammation, which causes all sorts of diseases.

As parents and carers, we need to work on storing up some positives in our children’s minds by practicing gratitude for what we do have and enjoy in life together.

Tips to keep in mind and practice for better mental and physical health:

  • >> Think of things you are grateful for every day. Studies have found that regular grateful thinking can increase happiness by as much as 25 percent.
  • >> Exercise regularly. Just going for a walk can elevate your mood and increase feelings of wellbeing.
  • >> Remember that we are essentially programmed to see and remember the bad things as a survival tool. In addition, remember that this is no longer necessary, and that you can start thinking about the good things instead.
  • >> Craft and colouring activities can help with anxiety and depression and are a form of mindfulness, which helps shift unhelpful thoughts and can even help sleep (calms the ‘amygdala’ that I mentioned earlier).

How I got started teaching yoga for kids

I first started practising yoga around 10 years ago at home, in my lounge room, using online videos. My children were 4, 7 and 16, and I’d recently become a single mother.

As I practiced more at home, my younger children began to join in of their own accord.  It would become a happy, playful time in the house and the animal and nature poses, like ‘tree pose’ became the favourites.

It was a stressful time, as my father passed away not long after I had separated and I’d set up a new home for myself and my children. I also had a bad car accident within those years after my divorce and had lingering neck and back problems. I lost my job and my confidence, and had to rebuild myself and my family unit. I had little family support apart from my mother.  Pregnancy and childbirth were also stressful times in my life and are for so many.  Dr. Diana Korevaar,  explains how ‘mindfulness’ can assist at these traumatic times and with emotional disorders,  helping parents heal themselves (along with professional help).

The illustrated handbook, ‘Mindfulness for mums and dads’ contains 25 short lessons to learn how to deeply connect with your children and partner with formal meditation instruction and case studies of parents who have found ways, like myself, to integrate mindfulness into their every -day lives.

Tracey and her little yogis

Children learn ways to calm their minds and also keep their bodies healthy and flexible.

Little minds are like sponges and instilling positive ways to relieve stress early on.

Yoga for kid’s classes and at home can help calm tantrums and manage anxiety and have many benefits for children with special needs, particularly children on the autism spectrum.

Yoga activates calming hormones, such as serotonin. The effect is much like when you have a massage or become engrossed in any activity that brings you calm and concentration and you literally forget what time it is. This is a much better way to activate these calming, feel-good hormones.

When a child commits to yoga practice, they also learn determination and perseverance. A shy child can become more confident as they build on their yoga poses with no competition but with themselves.

In addition, yoga poses coupled with mindfulness and breathing practices assists children to take control of their “monkey mind” and learn to be still for a moment.

I believe, if as a nation we care about our children’s mental health as much as their academic or sporting prowess, then we need to incorporate yoga into schools, homes and sporting facilities or retreats for kids in Australia.

The rates of anxiety in young children, domestic violence involving children, suicide in teenagers, addiction to screens, and obesity in our nation, should be enough encouragement to do something.

At-home yoga for kids: breathing exercises for kids

If you are still unsure whether you should send your little ones to a yoga class, or just want something to help calm them down at home, here are some breathing exercises you can try.

They are especially suitable for 2-5 year olds plus.

1.) Ask children to sit in easy sitting position and cross their legs (this is called “sukasana”).  To encourage them to sit up straight, have them imagine a piece of string coming out from the top of their heads and lifting their bodies up with a long neck and spine (you can get them to feel their spine on their own backs to connect with their bodies and understand how our spine supports our posture and breathing.)

Encourage them to put their hands on their stomachs and fell how their tummies fill up as they breathe in and then go soft as they breathe out. They can then move their hands up to their chests and feel how their chests rises as they breath in, like a balloon filling up with air and then flattens down like a balloon that you have let the air out of. (A real balloon can be demonstrated at beginning of breathing exercise and to engage the children). Breathe deeply in this manner for three to five breaths together.

2.) Have the kids lie down on their backs, play soothing music, and ask them to put their hands on their stomachs with their feet outstretched. Have them breathe in and out deeply, in through their nose and out through their mouth. Mouth-breathing is fine if that is easier at this stage.

Ask them to imagine a paper boat on their tummies and imagine it is a small boat on the sea. Feel it rise and fall with their breath as it moves over the waves of the sea.  Demonstrate and lie with your children.

Continue to lay like this and talk them through their breathing in and out slowly in their own rhythm.

You can add children’s relaxation stories to the process, either taped or make up your own.  You can also imagine you have a lemon in your hands and show them how to tighten their hands and squeeze the lemon, then let the lemon go and do the same with different body parts or just their hands and toes to start, them feel the difference when their hands and feet go ‘floppy’ and melt into the floor like ice-cream.

I know as a parent and former early years teacher that any rest and relaxation we can encourage in our children and for ourselves is worth the effort!  So, get crafty, breathe, focus on the good, let go of resentment, live in the moment, and exercise (better yet, do yoga!).  Most importantly, encourage the same in your children.

References:

Black, A. The Little Pocket Book of Mindfulness. 2012.  Cico Books, London, New York.