Seven Ways to Help Kids Build a Lifelong Yoga Practice

If you’re a parent, a yoga teacher, or an educator who’d like to inspire the kids in your life to develop a long-term yoga practice, the summer is a great time to start. Chances are, you’ve got a little more time to devote to the project, and kids who have just started their summer vacations do, too. 

It’s worth the time investment: According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, studies show that yoga can provide myriad benefits for school-age children. It can improve their balance and strength, reduce stress and anxiety, boost their self-esteem, hone their focus, and even improve their academic performance and classroom behavior. It can also reduce symptoms of ADHD, among other things.

Here are seven strategies you can try with kids, courtesy of two Kripalu presenters: Craig Hanauer, a Kripalu Yoga teacher and the founder of YogArts for kids, and Missy Brown, a mother, educator, and the founder of Deep Play for Kids.

1. Start when they’re young.

Craig recommends introducing children to yoga when they’re as young as possible. “Even if they’re not that interested in yoga at the time, you’re planting seeds,” he says. “Through fun, simple practices, they can develop core strength, body awareness, better breathing, and the ability to focus and turn their attention inward.” He’s seen many of his elementary school students return to yoga when they’re teenagers, dealing with mental-health issues, trauma, and other challenges—because they know it will help them.

To introduce young children to yoga, use themes and activities that are familiar to them, he says. Teach them poses named after animals and natural objects; invite them to sing their favorite songs; and weave rhythmic movement into their practice.

2. Give them practices they can master.

Make the practices developmentally appropriate for the children in your life, says Missy. For example, instead of asking a preschooler to meditate for five minutes on day one, ask them to close their eyes and enjoy 10 seconds of quiet time. “Start simple,” says Missy, “and scaffold it from there. Ten seconds of meditation for a 4-year-old can turn into 30 seconds or a minute for an older child.” Teach them practices one layer—and one level—at a time.

3. Let them practice with their peers.

For kids who respond well to yoga, help them find their tribe, Missy says. Encourage them to go to a regular kids’ yoga class, look for a school that offers yoga classes as part of its curriculum, or consider taking them to a kids yoga program.

4. Introduce them to breathwork.

“There are lots of tools, props, and games to teach children about breathing,” Missy says. For young children, she recommends putting a feather, a cotton ball, or a pompom in front of them and asking them to blow it across the table. This requires some abdominal activation, and helps them visualize their exhalation. Or ask them to lie down, put a small stuffed animal on their belly, and practice raising the animal on their belly as they inhale and lowering it as they exhale. Simple exercises like this will create a “purposeful pause” in a kid’s day, Missy says, to slow down and enjoy the sensations of the present moment. These exercises will also create a muscle memory in the children’s bodies, she observes. Over time, the practices will begin to feel familiar to them. Chances are, they’ll enjoy how it makes them feel, and they’ll want to do it more often.

Here’s another practice, from Craig: Invite children to lie face down on the floor, rise into Boat pose, and act like a seal, clapping their palms together and singing a song as they hold the pose. This builds abdominal strength and trains children to extend their exhalation, serving as an introductory form of pranayama.

5. Introduce them to multisensory rest time.

After you’ve coached a child through some fun, engaging yoga poses and some focusing breathwork, you can segue into rest time—an important part of yoga practice for both children and adults. Create a calming multisensory environment with soft music; soothing scents like lavender, and dim lights or candles, suggests Craig. When appropriate, offer the child some calming, grounding touch. A parent can give the child a gentle full-body massage while the child is lying in Savasana. Yoga teachers and educators can provide children similar benefits by giving them a ball massage—what Craig refers to as the “Ball Smush.” Here’s how it works:

Ask the child to lie in a relaxed prone position, make a pillow with their hands, turn their head to one side, and rest one cheek on top of their hands. Tell them that you’re going to take a large physio ball and press, roll, or gently dribble it along their head, back, and legs. (Avoid putting pressure on the backs of their knees.) Tell them that they can give you directions and control the pressure. “The Ball Smush provides deep pressure and proprioceptive input, which is calming, grounding, and regulating for kids of all ages,” Craig says.  

You can also walk them through a guided relaxation practices, says Missy. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine that they’re lying on a magic carpet or on a sandy beach. Create a story and stoke their imagination. Allow them to really settle in.

6. Teach them how to take their internal temperature.

Missy suggests coaching kids to tune into their bodies, breath, minds, and emotions, and “take their internal temperature.” For example, you can ask them to lie in Savasana and take a few deep breaths. Then ask them, “How are you feeling? Are you tired, anxious, hyper, or happy? How does your body feel right now?” By learning to take regular “windows of quiet,” Missy says, kids can learn how to be more present and in tune with themselves.

In time, you can teach them how to use different poses, breathing exercises, and other yoga-friendly practices to bring themselves back into balance, or simply to “rest, recharge, and cultivate inner calm. “You’re giving them a toolbox that they can use anywhere, anytime,” she says.

7. Offer a kid-friendly form of meditation.

There are lots of ways to teach kids how to meditate, but Craig particularly recommends a modern-day practice of tratak, or candle gazing. At the end of a yoga class, or at the beginning or end of the day, ask the child to lie on their belly, using their hands to create a pillow that they can rest their chin on. Put a battery-operated, color-changing tea light in front of them, and invite them to watch the colors change. “Many times, the kids become quite focused, even mesmerized,” he says.

When all these tools—yoga poses; breath awareness; centering practices that help kids tune into their bodies, minds, and emotions; relaxation time; and meditation—get woven into the fabric of children’s lives, at home or in the classroom, “then wherever they go, they can take their practice off the mat,” says Missy. “That’s when yoga becomes a way of life.”

Browse kids' programs at Kripalu.

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