I really enjoyed leading Yoga Storytime at the Camas Public Library last year. While I was teaching, a writer for the Post-Record contacted me to write a piece on the benefits of yoga for children. There are so many wonderful benefits, but the most important one is learning how to self regulate. As I learned in my Yoga Break for Children training: When children know how to self-regulate they do better in life.
According to an article by author John Hoffman called Self-Regulation Techniques for Children, he explains Self Regulation as "the ability to adapt your physiological, emotional and mental state to the task at hand." For example, my toddlers didn't want to stand in the long airport security line. They wanted to run around and play with the ropes and when told they needed to be calm, they began to tantrum. I tried counting. I tried threatening to take their toys. Nothing worked. Then, I remembered YOGA. We took a few big full yoga breaths and then I started singing quietly a song we play in class called Stop and Go, "Well, you walk and you walk and you walk and you STOP." When the line stopped, we tapped our knees or jumped in place or something else until it was time to walk again. Other kids in line joined in and we happily got through the line without tears or tension. I'm not saying it's always like that, but I'm saying it can be!
To function in society, we need to learn at a very young age how to adapt to social situations, connect with and care for others and be able to identify and control our emotions. Toddlers have really BIG feelings. When we want a child to calm down, we say "Calm down." However, we don't really teach them how to make that happen. It is hard to remain zen in the face of a screaming toddler. Typically, the parent becomes upset and both parent and child end up needing to calm down!
"Biological self-regulation is the ability to adapt your state of arousal (physical, energy, calmness, alertness, excitement, etc.) according to the requirements of the situation you are dealing with." says Hoffman. For this reason, we do a lot of energy shifting in toddler yoga to practice adapting changes. For example, we play freeze dance and when the music stops, we do Elephant Breath, Bee Breath or a calming yoga pose. Then, we start the music again and continue running or dancing. We stop and notice how fast our hearts are beating when we're dancing and after breathing, we are able to notice how it makes our hearts beat slower and makes our bodies feel more relaxed. Children are able to make that connection and soon realize they have the power to control and calm their bodies.
Additionally, we practice patience and impulse control. I always pass out scarves for running and dancing, and it's a challenge for the kids to wait their turn to select or put away their scarf. Some parents get uneasy when their child doesn't follow direction, but my class creates a safe space to practice patience and taking turns. Children are allowed to have their feelings and learn how to work through them. We learn we don't have to be happy all the time. It's ok to feel negative emotions (disappointment, jealousy, anger), but it's not ok to linger in them too long. We have to find a way to breathe, let go and move on.
I know some parents are weary of bringing their child to yoga for fear they won't stay on their mat or participate. For some children it takes a few classes to stay put. However, we use a lot of engaging music, yoga stories and games to lure them in! Many children prefer to observe for the first few classes before joining. My own daughter refused to practice yoga with me while I was practice teaching. I gave classes to her little brother and she just watched. This went on for months, until one day she rolled out a couple yoga mats and taught an entire class to her brother verbatim. Another little boy in my class, about 3 years old, refused to stay on his mat for the first couple months. Now, he sits next to me and even though he won't do everything, he doesn't go off his mat. He even sings along to the songs!
The best feedback is when parents tell me how their children are using the "Big Full Yoga Breath" at home when they need to calm down. I use it with my own children and they remind me all the time to use it myself! Being a parent definitely challenges my ability to remain calm. It's a lifelong practice and we need to lead by example as well as teach our children how to process their feelings so they can go out into the world and be kind, compassionate and successful grown-ups. It's never too early or too late to start.