One of my first jobs as a yoga instructor was for a family – a set of forward-thinking parents and their four children. They asked me to come to their home and lead a weekly class for all of them in the hopes that it would calm their rambunctious kids down in the evening. I was just thrilled to have a teaching job, I didn’t even think about how important that hour was for the kids.
The benefit of yoga is a subject that’s been on my mind a lot recently. I drank the kool-aid about its benefits in college. Yoga calmed me down during stressful exam weeks. It helped me create healthy habits when so many of my friends were drunkenly eating pokie sticks at 2 am. It helped me transition my love for dance to a different kind of passion for movement and accidentally opened the door to all of the spiritual and mental stuff that yoga can unlock.
Even though I was coming to these realizations about my own practice around the same time I started teaching yoga for this family, I didn’t internalize the idea that the kids in my class would benefit from all that yoga “stuff” just as much – if not more so – than I was.
The benefits of yoga for kids extend into every aspect of their developing minds. Studies have shown that the brain’s functionality in all areas of rational thinking also plays a role in the processing and regulation of emotions. Essentially that means that reason and emotion go hand in hand, and developing emotional skills is equally as valuable as traditionally foundational school subjects like math and science.
But where does yoga come into play with understanding and developing emotional skills, you ask? Evidence has backed up my opinion about one of the most underrated benefits of yoga: increasing self-awareness. I speak to it all the time in my classes. As I cue my class to lunge into Warrior II and track their gaze over their outstretched fingertips, I ask them notice where their body is in space. Even though their eyes only see their outstretched arm, they know their left arm is reaching just as far to the back of the room as their right arm is to the front, and their hips are square to the side as they lunge deeply into their right leg. I ask them to take up a lot of space on their mats.
That’s the physical element of building self-awareness. What comes along with self-awareness is mindfulness. When we we are attuned to the present moment as it is happening, we are practicing mindfulness and thus, working on building a habit of greater self-awareness about more than just the physical body.
For kids who are just learning to regulate their emotions, incorporating little nuggets of mindfulness into their day helps them get into the habit of noticing their emotions, managing stress and excitement evenly and accepting their current emotional state. This helps to slow down reaction time to avoid knee-jerk reactions.
These are incredibly difficult skills that adults have a hard time even wrapping their heads around, let alone mastering. The sooner and more frequently that kids are exposed to ways to practice mindfulness, the greater their chances are in adopting the technique as they grow and have to face more stressful life situations.
Shockingly, one in ten of the United States’ young people suffers from a mental health condition that meets diagnostic criteria, and one in five suffers from problems so significant that they diminish the ability for academic achievement and maintaining meaningful social relationships.
Many schools are finally adopting more holistic learning styles and are incorporating yoga into regular programming – something I never would have dreamed of happening when I was in school. There are a lot of ways to get more involved with offering yoga to kids if it’s something you’re interested in. Mission Propelle, an empowerment program for elementary school-age girls, for example, offers a children’s yoga training program.
We have a long way before we nurture our mind and soul as much as our bodies, but I’m encouraged by the direction we’re headed and I’m eager to help cultivate the collective consciousness around it in any way I can.
What are your thoughts on holistic learning and teaching mindfulness in general – especially to kids?