Why Yoga for Children?
Written By Erica Ortiz
Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist, MCD, CCC-SLP, RYT 200
Hi! I am a Registered Yoga Teacher, with a special interest in teaching children’s and family yoga, as well as a pediatric speech/language pathologist. You may be asking yourself how those 2 seemingly different professions may go together. Well, as I began my own personal yoga practice several years ago, I quickly noticed the many benefits of yoga (in addition to improved strength and flexibility): I could focus and attend better, I felt calmer and better able to handle my emotions, I was able to quiet my mind better and really tune in to my own intuition, and I was able to be more mindful and present throughout my daily life. I began to think about many of the students that I work with-almost all of them struggle not only with motor skills, but also with attention, focus, memory, self-regulation, and breathing. Hey-yoga works on all of these things!!! I quickly started doing some Googling to see if there actually was such a thing as yoga for children (yay-there is!). I immediately enrolled in a 200 hour yoga teacher training, followed by 2 additional children’s yoga trainings (including one for children with special needs). What follows are some of the benefits of yoga for children, particularly children with developmental delays or disorders.
Physical benefits: Many children with developmental disorders have trouble with motor planning and sequencing, which means they have difficulty planning and then carrying out motor activities. Asana sequences naturally work on this, in a fun, novel, and non-threatening way. In addition, many children with developmental difficulties have decreased core strength, which has a negative effect on postural control and breath support. Some yoga poses and breathing exercises can strengthen and tone the diaphragm and support appropriate core strength and breath control. In addition, singing and chanting can engage the breathing mechanisms, as well as target oral motor skills during articulation of songs or chants. Many children are kinesthetic learners (i.e., they learn through movement and interaction with their environment)-so participating in yoga can help them learn new concepts, vocabulary, and skills.
Emotional benefits: Many children with developmental disorders experience anxiety. When experiencing anxiety, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is activated. This is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. Many children with developmental disorders function primarily in that “fight or flight” mode with their SNS constantly activated, due in part to the difficulty they may have in making sense of their world. When the SNS is activated, learning and interactions with the environment as well as others are difficult, because our body has perceived a threat and is solely focused on survival. Yoga, through the use of breathing and mindful movement, can shift us out of the SNS into the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is the part of the nervous system that allows us to “rest and digest.” When functioning in the PNS, we are more able to cope, communicate, learn, interact, and process our environment appropriately. Pranayama, or breathing exercises, used in yoga can help to decrease anxiety.
In addition to decreased anxiety, other positive emotional benefits of yoga may include improved ability to focus/attend, increased creativity/imagination, and improved self-awareness and self-esteem,
Neurological benefits: Many children with developmental disorders have difficulty crossing the midline of their body (i.e., crossing a limb from one side of their body to the other) and with bilateral movement (using both sides of the body simultaneously). Crossing midline is an extremely important skill because it allows for communication of information across both sides of the brain. Many yoga poses encourage this movement, even if it’s in a completely passive manner (where the child might need total physical prompting from an adult). Difficulty crossing the midline may lead to problems with reading, writing, and gross motor movements that require co-ordination of both sides of the body (such as crawling or skipping). Core strength/stability, trunk rotation, motor planning/sequencing, and body awareness are all important building blocks to developing the ability to cross midline-all of which are targeted by yoga!
Yoga also supports sensory processing. Children that have difficulty with sensory processing have difficulty interpreting information from the world around them, and therefore have difficulty responding appropriately to the environment. Yoga offers a multi-sensory experience which can support sensory experiences and self-regulation.
As you can see, yoga for children has many possible benefits. In upcoming posts, I will share some ideas of using yoga to encourage speech and language development.
Sources: “Every Kids Yoga” training manual, by Craig Hanauer
“Learn with Yoga ABC Yoga Cards for Kids: Instructor Guide” by Christine Ristuccia