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One of my best friends has just given birth. The baby is pretty small, but already has a packed timetable ahead of her, with playgym, baby sensory group, music class, baby singing all coming up. And baby yoga. More and more yoga classes aimed at children are opening up, and in middle class yummy mummy suburbs like Clapham and Richmond it’s more the norm than not for a child to have at least been to one yoga class. But why? What does yoga do for children?
In many ways, the same things that it does for adults – relaxes them, cultivates a sense of connection, improves concentration, relieve stress, understand their body and improve self worth. But the real value in introducing yoga at an early age means that these benefits become part of their daily experience and habits, and thus influence how they live their lives. A calmer and more confident child is likely to live a more content and satisfied life, and by consequence contribute to a more compassionate and understanding community. Teaching kids to handle stress through movement and meditation will help them through all areas of their lives, long after they leave school and enter the world as adults. It’s a tool of empowerment. Jo Manuel from Special Yoga, a school offering classes to children with special needs, says that ‘yoga helps to bring inner peace, helps to regulate our emotions, control the mind and manage the ebbs and flow of life.’ Which all sounds pretty attractive.
Cultivating a sense of self-worth based upon seeing oneself as a whole – body, mind and spirit – yoga can help to challenge the negativity from external references and encourage respect for the body. Physically nurturing the body and balancing the system chemically and physiologically, yoga provides a foundation for children to practice healthy habits that see the body as part of the whole, a functional and valuable piece of the individual’s being, and not an ‘other’ to fight, despite what the media may suggest. Inculcating this sense of self at younger age, before the bombardment of media images begins (although research claims that even our youngest children are saturated by advertisements) may help the child feel more capable of challenging some of the unhealthy stereotypes they become exposed to.
With time devoted to PE and sport in school decreasing, and fewer children than ever regularly participating in physical activity, there is growing concern about the health of our young people. But often the decision to take action about activity is only taken later, as an adult, and only when triggered by an issue of weight. This sends the wrong message that exercise is about weight, when really it is about holistic wellness. Starting a regular practice at an early age can help young people few exercise as an essential and regular part of management for their own wellness.
Emma Charvet, who runs Little Yoga Monkeys had one challenging boy in her class, who had significant troubles with self esteem and confidence. Over a few months she worked with him on a yoga routine set to music, and reports that ‘His mother now tells me that her regularly meditates at home and has started to build new friendships at school as a result of his growing self-confidence. Yoga gave children skills for life in learning how to manage their emotions and feel good about themselves simply through movement.’
Whilst there’s no doubt that yoga and meditation is hugely valuable for children, an important part of influencing how beneficial it will be is in the approach taken. If the yoga class is another session in the child’s busy timetable set up by mum to improve her kids and make them achieve, the wrong message is being sent. The yoga class is not about succeeding at anything. Few children ever stop and just ‘be’ – but that’s exactly what shavasana is. Rather than constantly striving and doing, it’s about stopping and being.
The demands on young people seem to be ever increasing, and the toll that this may be having on the mental health of the population has reached crisis proportions. Yoga can help provide teenagers with tools to manage their stress levels and deal with challenges posed by external pressures, creating a more balanced individual outlook as well as a stronger population. Pressure and expectation is everywhere for our young people, and the yoga mat is a space where these demands are lifted. To just be oneself is a liberating message, and one which teenagers are not used to hearing. This is because the yoga class is a space where there is no competition and everyone is free to be, without being judged. There is no rivalry involved with yoga, just the powerful assertion that acceptance and individuality is enough. Rather than unattainable and unrealistic demands, yoga encourages a mindset of gratitude, along with a focus on cultivating the life that people are capable of. Yoga is about working with one’s own body and appreciating personal growth and development. In a society where goals and grades seem to rule, it’s an important counterbalance.
Yoga breathing boosts the oxygen flowing around the body, increasing mental capacity and physical energy, which is obviously hugely important for academic achievement as well as general wellbeing. Schools which offer yoga have found that their children have greater levels of concentration and are able to focus on the task in front of them. There’s also evidence that it can help children sleep, again boosting their capabilities. In 2007 researchers at California State University recently examined the correlation between yoga and academic performance, discipline, attendance, and self-esteem. The study showed a 20% increase in the number of students who felt good about themselves and a six percent increase in classroom discipline and a 2008 study found it to greatly decrease stress for high school children.
Our emotional health and wellbeing as a nation has been neglected for so long, in favour of a more pragmatic and monetary approach to success. But mental health concerns, growing unemployment, decreasing educational standards and poor physical health all suggest that this might not be the right route to take.
It all comes back to the heart of yoga. Yoga is all about union and compassion. Union and compassion with the self, and with others. This is what the real benefit for children seems to be. By connecting with themselves, their bodies, their emotions and their experiences they become calmer and more grounded individuals. They understand, and seek to make the world a better place. These type of individuals are the type we need more of in the world – and our children can be them.