Making Yoga Kid-Friendly
Original Article by U.S. News & World Report by Michael O. Schroeder here.
Namaste to the future.
Reflecting the swelling ranks of adult yogis, a growing number of kids are now doing yoga, as health experts, researchers and educators note the promise of initial research suggesting the ancient meditative movement practice may help little ones relieve stress, calm anxiety and improve mood – along with helping address ADHD, without drugs. The benefits seen in school-aged children and adolescents mirror many seen in adults – and extend to physical health as well, including improved flexibility and possible positive effects for heart and lung-related, or cardiopulmonary, health.
In all, 3 percent of children – or 1.7 million in the U.S. – did yoga in 2012, according to the latest data available from the National Health Interview Survey; that’s up about 429,000 kids from 2007.
More study is still needed, researchers say, to evaluate the suggested benefits of yoga for children, as well as who might benefit most, and what type of yoga practices, duration and frequency would be optimal. “There’s a lot more we need to understand,” says Lindy L. Weaver, clinical faculty at The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. But, she says, “Overall we’re seeing a real wide variety of improvements in physical and psychological health in our children and adolescents who are participating in these types of yoga programs.” Research on yoga programs offered in clinical and classroom settings have found decreased levels of depression, stress and anger, plus improved coping skills, she says; that’s in addition to improved strength, flexibility and fitness.
Weaver led a review of research on yoga interventions used to reduce anxiety in kids and adolescents published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy November/December issue. Based on that, she says, yoga – as it was defined in the review, combining postures, controlled breathing and meditation – “could be an effective method for reducing anxiety and anxiety-related symptoms in children and adolescents.” The review took into account research on children ages 3 up to 18 who did yoga; 12 of the 16 studies analyzed in the review found yoga decreased kids’ or adolescents’ anxiety, she says.
“It’s a pretty new area, but the initial studies are promising,” echoes Bethany Butzer, a lecturer at the University of New York in Prague and an independent research consultant. Based on research evaluating school-based yoga programs, she says it appears yoga helps kids develop three main competencies: mind-body awareness; self-regulation, including emotion and stress regulation and resilience; and physical fitness. “Those three competencies are thought to relate to potential changes, or improvements in a number of different aspects of health and well-being: things like increased mood, lower [rates of] psychological disorders, improved behavior [and] improved academic performance,” Butzer says. “That is supported by the initial research in this field, but there’s definitely more research that needs to be done.”
You don’t have to explain it in so many words to 8-year-old Ryan Stephenson, a second grader at Rondout School District 72, an independent public school district that began incorporating yoga five years ago. At 9:45 each school day, he and his peers take a 15-minute mindful movement break, with a livelier, secular version of the ancient practice that follows story themes. “It’s really fun,” he says. “We get to do a lot of movements, and I love doing a lot of different poses.”
Ryan’s favorite is pigeon pose. This involves starting on all fours and bringing a knee forward, while extending the other leg back to perch like a bird; but for kids, the point isn’t perfect form. Laughing is OK during the mindful movement break led by physical education teacher Jodi Barasky. “I feel, like, relaxed,” Ryan says, regarding the effect of the mind-body routine between his literacy and math block. “It makes me calm down a little bit.”
Ultimately, the mindful practice is meant to meet kids where they are, whether it’s being energized by a sun salutation or calmed by the meditative movement. “Personally, I feel that children today have a plate that is not only full, but overflowing, and they need to find a way to self-regulate,” Barasky says.
Led by Barasky and superintendent Jenny Wojcik, Rondout offers yoga for all students in kindergarten through eighth grade, in physical education class and as part of the morning routine for students kindergarten through second grade. “We had developed a neuroscience study group here … a group of teachers who were interested in looking at the brain research, and practices like yoga and mindfulness, and we’d been studying different strategies for incorporating those kinds of activities that would enhance not only students’ overall general well-being physically and emotionally, but also academically,” Wojcik says.
While she says some might argue incorporating yoga in school could take away from class time, she’s encouraged by emerging scientific research supporting the benefits of yoga on a child’s well-being, attention and focus that ultimately maximizes what students learn when they return to class. “That’s very powerful in terms of making a case for the value of this in a school day.”
Increasingly, experts say, schools like Rondout and clinical settings are looking at incorporating yoga for benefits ranging from improved academic performance to decreased stress levels.
At Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, Colorado, yoga therapist Michelle Fury uses yoga primarily as a psychotherapeutic intervention, working with children on an inpatient and outpatient basis; the ancient practice is used to help treat everything from anxiety and depression to managing pain and sleep issues.
“In general, we find that yoga programs are feasible and acceptable in clinical and school settings,” Weaver says. “Generally, there’s good attendance and good enthusiasm, satisfaction, self-reports of improved strength, relaxation, mood, energy.” Still, says Dr. Marlynn Wei, a psychiatrist and certified yoga teacher in New York City, and co-author of the upcoming book, “Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga:” “There have been no formal studies on the safety of yoga in children.” Like with any sport, she says it’s important to make sure a child is supervised.
For parents aspiring to raise yogis, experts say it’s good to model the practice – but don’t try to create perfectly posed miniatures. Fury recommends first finding a yoga teacher experienced in instructing children to keep kids engaged, make it playful and fun, and minimize risk. “School-aged kids hold poses for a lot less time than adults, and even teens will hold poses for less time,” Fury says. “Physiologically, that’s what’s needed for their bodies, because they’re growing and you don’t want to hold them in poses for a long time. It’s not good for their bones and their muscle growth.”
Still, even though adults and kids do yoga differently, it can be an opportunity to share a common interest and connect. It’s a way, experts say, for parents and kids to become more in tune with each other as they do with body and mind. “It’s something that the family can all do together,” Wei says.