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Yoga for kids: How to calm little minds

Adults aren’t the only ones who are stressed. Find out how yoga can be used to help kids combat anxiety. Plus, learn simple poses to practice at home.

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Every day, four-year-old Yasmina Seyfaie rolls out her mini yoga mat and folds her body into animal shapes alongside her mom, Eliane Bejjani, in their Mississauga, Ont., home.

It all started when Yasmina was a year and a half and began mimicking poses Bejjani was showing her husband to help with his lower back pain.

“Now, every morning we wake up and she says, ‘Mommy, let’s go do yoga,’” says Bejjani. In addition to being a bonding activity, Bejjani says yoga has taught her daughter patience and discipline. “Any time she’s having a tantrum or is upset or crying, I tell her to take deep breaths in and out, just like she does in yoga.”

Yoga for kids is becoming increasingly common, popping up in physical education programs and daycares and being added to the repertoire of yoga studios. While the physical benefits—improving flexibility, strength and coordination—are certainly part of its charm, yoga is increasingly used as a relaxation technique to help anxious kids combat the stresses of everyday life. A study at Harvard Medical School showed yoga was a beneficial tool supporting adolescent mental health.

Toronto-based child and adolescent psychiatrist M. Lee Freedman says she has seen an increase in stress-related conditions in children over the past 10 years.

“Kids need better coping skills today because they have more to deal with than in the past,” says Freedman, who blames this phenomenon on social issues like more stress on families, information overload, reduced downtime caused by the overscheduling of activities and greater pressure to succeed academically. “There has been a devaluing of quiet time and an overvaluing of productive time to the point where people are doing way more and living less in the moment.”

While both adults and kids internalize stress, Freedman says it often manifests in kids physically, resulting in health issues such as insomnia, stomach aches, headaches and mood swings.

“The parts of their brain that are responsible for the regulation of emotions and processing all of the things that are necessary for managing stress are still developing,” she says. Yoga helps kids connect with their bodies and recognize when they’re anxious. “When children are practising any kind of mind-body activity, they’re noticing how their mind is affecting their body, and how their body is affecting their mind.”

Certified Iyengar yoga instructor Temmi Ungerman Sears pioneered the kids’ yoga movement in Canada. Her Toronto studio was the first to offer yoga classes to children as young as five. Sears launched the YogaBuds for Kids program after throwing a yoga-themed birthday party for her son, Jeremy, who had been “playing yoga” with her from the time he was two. Since launching the program in 1997, Sears says she’s seen first-hand the grounding effects of yoga in children’s lives.

“It gives them a feeling of stability in an unstable world,” she says.

Raquel Cader has seen the positive mood-altering effects of yoga in her 12-year-old daughter, Natalie, who has been attending classes for five years.

“Sometimes it’s like dropping off one kid at the beginning of class and picking up a different one,” she says. “She’s more relaxed and her perspective is often changed.”

Cader hopes yoga will provide Natalie with relaxation tactics she can use when faced with difficult situations that might otherwise send her into panic mode.

“I kind of think of it as a ‘control-alt-delete’ for the mind,” says Cader.

Sears says many of her young students have used the techniques they’ve learned in yoga in times of stress.

“I’ve had children tell me that before a test they’ll chant the ‘om.’ It calms them down and brings them into a focused place.” The non-competitive nature of yoga also helps foster a sense of acceptance among kids and their peers. “There’s no playoff tournament,” says Cader.

Of course, there are also the physical benefits of yoga to consider. From easing muscle tension and improving circulation and flexibility to juicing joints that can get stiff from sitting in school or in front of the TV, yoga is a powerful tool for boosting your childrens’ overall well-being. And with fun names for positions derived from nature and animals, it almost seems that this ancient practice was tailor-made for kids.

No time to get to a yoga class?

Here are some fun classic animal-themed moves you can do with your kids.

A version of this article appeared in our March 2015 issue with the headline, “Namaste, kid,” p. 34.