As I stepped on the sharp edge of a Lego buried in our carpet, my temper snapped. “That’s it! I’ve asked you five times to brush your teeth and put away these toys. It’s way past bedtime!”
My 5-year-old son looked up at me over the elaborate helicopter he was building. “Mom, maybe you should take a belly breath.”
My scowl turned into a smile. I’d started teaching him a few yoga poses and breathing exercises at home, like how to dive into dolphin pose to get out the wiggles or explode with a “volcano breath” when his little sister made him mad.
And now here he was, teaching the teacher. I took his good advice and felt more levelheaded after a deep breath.
Although I’ve practiced and taught yoga for two decades, I’ve only recently realized its value for kids. And I’m not the only one: From toddlers to teens, yoga for children is more accessible than ever before. Defined as the union of mind and body, yoga includes everything from simple deep breaths to mellow seated stretches to complex strength-building poses.
According to an article published on the Harvard Health Blog, 3 percent of all children in the United States are practicing yoga – many of them in schools.
Physical benefits of yoga include improved flexibility, balance, strength and cardiovascular health. Research also shows mental and emotional benefits to youth from ages 5 to 18, including decreased anxiety, boosted concentration and memory, improved confidence and self-esteem, and better academic performance.
The goal of yoga is to generate self-awareness, which teaches kids to recognize their emotions. While it doesn’t erase feelings, yoga can give them a way to process frustration, anger or sorrow in a healthy way. This in turn helps kids learn to act thoughtfully rather than react impulsively.
Kids who practice yoga can learn to tune into their body’s sensations – like butterflies in the stomach, clenched fists or sweaty palms – and then use breath and movement to address uncomfortable feelings before they get out of control.
In recent study from MIT on the effects of an eight-week mindfulness program (comprising breathing exercises), sixth-graders reported feeling less stress and fewer negative emotions after the program. Brain scans revealed reduced activation of their amygdala, the region in the brain that processes fear.
“These results show that yoga’s benefits extend beyond the meditative state – it can change how the brain responds to everyday stressors,” said John Gabrieli of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.
But the positive results tend to fade once the mindfulness practice stops, Gabrieli said. “Like with healthy eating or physical exercise, a consistent daily experience is important.”
One way to ensure that the benefits of yoga extend beyond school-based or extracurricular programs is to encourage kids to practice at home, too.
“Yoga can help kids regulate their own energy, which is a universal goal for parents,” said Ann Huber, program director of YogaKids, a teaching certification program.
Huber said that yoga for kids usually includes songs, stories or games. “Teaching grown-up yoga to kids doesn’t work. It’s best to keep it simple, short and fun.”
One way to do that is by watching an online video together, such as one of the Cosmic Kids yoga stories – books are also available. Co-founder Jaime Amor said that her “yoga adventures” are perfect for parents who aren’t comfortable with initiating yoga themselves. Since so many schools offer yoga programs, kids may be the ones introducing their parents to yoga instead of vice versa.
“Let the kids lead you,” Amor said. “Often they are better than adults at doing the movements, which is a great way to build their confidence.”
Erin Hurley is a registered children’s yoga teacher and an elementary school counselor in Virginia who has helped bring yoga programs into schools. She trained staff at Cherry Run Elementary School in Fairfax County, later expanding to three other elementary and middle schools. She started leading workshops for parents because many of them asked how to integrate yoga at home.
Hurley gives parents tips for helping kids get to sleep (place a stuffed animal on their belly as a “breathing buddy” and rock it to sleep with deep breaths), as well as tools for helping children address conflicts with siblings (first use “flying bird breaths” to calm down by inhaling arms overhead, then exhaling arms back down).
Hurley is appearing this spring at the National Kids Yoga Conference in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, hosted by the nonprofit YoKid. The goal of the conference is to empower and inspire more caregivers from around the country to teach kids yoga.
“Paying attention to what’s happening inside of yourself makes everything easier, for kids and adults,” said Liz Bolton, YoKid board member and owner of the Birth Club yoga studio in Alexandria.
Bolton said she’s adding a kids yoga class at her studio – partly so she can bring her toddler to the class.
At home, Bolton encourages her son to join her whenever she gets out her mat, and said she uses yoga to help when he’s “overwhelmed by big feelings.”
For other parents interested in practicing yoga with their children, Bolton says to start simply: “Take a few deep breaths together or dance around to your favorite song – any mindful movement is yoga, as long as you do it with intention.”
Giselle Shardlow, founder of Kids Yoga Stories, recommends that families start by spending five minutes per day on a routine that makes yoga meaningful and relevant to your children. “Does your toddler like dinosaurs? Move and breathe like them. Does your teenager like to exercise? Take a walk outside together.”
Shardlow believes that bringing yoga into the home allows a more “intimate experience” than kids might find in a studio or at school, one that can change and grow as the child matures.
“Yoga helps us live life to the fullest potential by anchoring us in ourselves,” Shardlow said. “It’s a lifelong journey you can take together as a family.”