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Yoga For Kids

A 10-year-old boy enters the children’s yoga class I’m teaching. He is large for his age, chunky in the middle, tall, clumsy and loud. He makes up stories about his name and the other boys in the class. He interrupts me incessantly. The lead teacher keeps apologizing for him. She rolls her eyes, telling him to shush and sit down. I tell her the noise doesn’t bother me. They are okay, and so am I.

I have brought a brown bag with an ear of corn hidden inside. I want to teach the children about ecology, nature, the process of growth, and the traditions of our Native American heritage. I want to impart the concepts of waiting, patience, transformation, connection. They want to be entertained.

After 20 minutes, I’ve lost the class of 13 boys and girls, ages 4 to 11. One child sits out for most of the class. Two other boys stick out their tongues at me, all of us trying not to giggle. The children become louder, gather into clusters, and lose their way. So do I.

I wonder: Was this group really that bad? Was I off center? What else was going on here?

After teaching yoga for 13 years, and training people in Color Me Yoga for Children for 9 years, I have certainly had my share of off days. Grace seems to prevail in those situations. I know my calling. I trust my path of teaching yoga

I reel the children back in during Sivasana (relaxation pose), having them imagine themselves as a corn cob, still and sweet. I am about to ring the bell after nearly five minutes in this pose. Now still and at peace, they do not want to get up. The little boy who sat out for most of the class sighs, “Can we do this pose for the entire class next time?” My little chunky friend adds, “Yes, can we do this pose for a whole bunch of minutes next time? I love this pose.” Finally a third little boy chimes in, almost in tears, “I so want to do this pose next time. My mom just drives me around from class to class. I’m so stressed. I just want to rest.” My heart breaks.

When I was young, children didn’t seem to know the word stress. It wasn’t really a part of my own vocabulary until I was well into my thirties.

Today, in an hour-long children’s yoga class in 2010, a little boy used the word with great aplomb.

Reconnecting with Yoga

This class, once again, provided a new kind of grace for teaching about the pulse of American children today. They seem pressured, over-stimulated, overfed and undernourished. They’re entertained rather than inspired, disconnected in some fundamental way from their environment, their bodies, their souls and each other. They are told to respect others, and yet, because of many lines being crossed, they often don’t know how to respect adults or their world. They are given limited opportunities to succeed at responsibility or gain a sense of inner motivation. Instant gratification drains their little nervous systems and sets up unrealistic goals. The fear and mistrust that many adults model for them by hoarding things creates confused identities. They have seen more in their young lives

than many of us saw until we were well into adulthood. Finally, they don’t really know how to play.

Obviously not every American child fits this description—I’m talking about a general trend. In my work, I hear the same thing repeatedly, from parents, school teachers and occupational therapists. Children are struggling. We all want to help them become their full, abundant selves. Yoga may just do the trick.

Yoga—the ancient practice of uniting Sun and Moon, Fire and Air, Earth and Water, Masculine and Feminine, Mind and Body, Spirit and Heart—has at its root the concept of loving compassion and right relationship. These children are our mirrors. In Native American tradition, we thank the sick person for showing us the sickness of the society so society can come back to the right relationship. Could it be that our children are telling us to get back into right relationship, too?

A recent article in Newsweek [July 19, 2010] claimed that American children are in a creativity crisis. Children who are given fewer opportunities for play—including role playing, expressing emotions through play, problem-solving, creating imaginary worlds, making up pretend friends, and thinking outside the box—are losing vital opportunities to build their intelligence and their motivation.

Children who are sedentary or less likely to participate in sports are often placated with video games and other electronic toys and media. This is no small thing. According to Aadil Palkhivala, a yogi in Oregon, the AC current that is found in computers, cell phones, televisions, and other electrical devices pierces our magnetic fields, literally causing our iron-rich blood to move in the current’s directions rather than its natural direction. Our nervous systems are then fatigued, our brains are overworked, and our entire systems are unable to resist the side effects of chronic stress. As the exhausted system then goes numb, the cycle begins to self-perpetuate—we play more video games, watch more TV, etc. Chronic stress produces elevated cortisol levels (a breeding ground for diabetes), hormonal imbalances (bone loss, eating disorders, emotional disorders), rage and aggression (from unexpressed emotions), bullying (a national epidemic), insomnia (which further increases cortisol levels and increases anxiety and depression), nervous habits (which can lead to addictive behavior), and immune disorders.

Yoga Can Help

Here are some of the additional challenges American kids are facing, and how yoga can help.

  • Competition. When children are taught that their value is measured by external rewards, they can lose motivation to achieve unless they believe they will get something out of it. Yoga teaches them to appreciate the moment, finding intrinsic reward and self-determination.

  • Trauma. When children are traumatized, whether by a mishap on the playground or physical or emotional abuse at home, their young nervous systems get locked. This can result in isolation, aggression, violence, stomachaches, headaches and more serious illnesses. Yoga soothes and nurtures them. It calms the nervous system, boosts immunity, harmonizes the self, and helps children rebalance as they navigate through difficult emotions. Yoga turns on the parasympathetic system, which reduces ADD and fosters cooperative environments.

  • Anxiety. Anxiety can be caused by stress, competition, trauma, lack of sleep, overscheduling, too much homework, relationship issues at school, tests and family problems. Yoga, especially through the practices of creative visualization, meditation, slow breathing and deep forward bends, can help reduce anxiety and recondition the nervous system, allowing children to form their own inner connections and self-empowerment.

  • ADD/ADHD. Children with ADD or ADHD have an inability to stay focused, be comfortable in their surroundings, have ease in social situations, and follow through. Yoga, because of its slow progressive methods to engage the entire being, teaches children how to regulate themselves. It builds an internal sense of rhythm and allows children to express their energy creatively.

  • Violence and Aggression. There are many causes of the negative emotions that trigger violence and aggression in children. Yoga can provide a safe place for the child to find his inner language and experience healing, on his own terms. The practice of “loving compassion” is the foundation of any good yoga program. Children’s social-emotional development depends on a balanced, harmonious learning environment, which yoga creates. Teaching loving compassion has tremendous health and societal benefits. For example, levels of the “anti-aging hormone,” DHEA, are raised astronomically in people who live by loving compassion. These people also have lower cortisol production, thus allowing them to live more fully in the parasympathetic nervous system.

  • Inability to Express Emotions. When a child does not experience the necessary steps of social-emotional development, mental illness can develop and aggressive behavior can surface. Frozen feelings keep children uninspired, bored, restless and experiencing poor health in bones, joints and organs. Yoga engages all the senses. It creates a loving learning environment so children can relax, be more receptive, and develop confidence, curiosity and comfort in relating to others. A relaxed, receptive body produces a relaxed, receptive brain, willing and able to learn.

  • Childhood Obesity. Children who suffer from obesity develop health issues traditionally belonging to adults. Among other problems, they can lose their innate ability to make creative choices. They can develop language-skill issues and lose their vitality. Yoga for children, which involves creative play, gets kids off their seats and onto the yoga mat. Their brains develop more rapidly. Learning coordination in movement increases brain power, according to a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. Movement and creative play stimulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates healthy bone growth.

Universal Yoga

Yoga is a simple, cost-effective tool that any child can practice. It needs to be available to all children everywhere, not just the children whose parents can afford it. Would it not ultimately cost a lot less for society to offer children yoga than to constantly drag them to doctors, psychiatrists, case workers and diet camps? Would it not be more beneficial to teach a child to breathe her way through life, rather than condition her with medication that she might not actually need (and never mind the side effects)? Would it not make more sense to teach parents and caregivers to slow down, do less and enjoy play with their children, rather than running around every day from one activity to another? What about teaching our children to live in nature, rather than live through virtual experiences, such as video games and television? Children need connection. They need family time.

Imagine teaching and modeling empathy, loving compassion, self-acceptance and kindness for the Earth and its inhabitants. If we practice our yoga through the motions of our daily lives, it would be the greatest gift we could give our children.

About the Author:

Marsha Therese Danzig is the founder of Color Me Yoga for Children, an international 200-hour yoga school and children’s yoga program committed to bringing the gift of yoga to all children everywhere. You can read more about Color Me Yoga at