Health

Friday 19 September 2014

Yoga empowers kids emotionally – it teaches them to stand like a warrior

All around the country parents are discovering the benefits of yoga, from improved concentration to flexibility and confidence.

Yoga teacher Rachel Collins with her children Sean (12), Saoirse (7) and Tara (5) in a yoga 'scorpion' position.
Gabriela with mum Stephanie
Saoirse Collins

FOR most parents getting their child to sit still for two minutes can sometimes be a challenge. So many would scoff at the thought of them being able to take part in a 45-minute yoga class.

Indeed, for most of the thousands of years it's been around, yoga has not been something you'd associate with children.

But look around and kids' yoga classes are popping up everywhere with advocates counting the benefits for little ones, which range from improved concentration to increased flexibility.

The adults among us who practise know the benefits of a yoga class at the end of the day. After an hour of stretching and paying attention to your breath, you feel more relaxed, more chilled out, almost zen-like. Instructors say it's just the same for kids – they too feel the relaxation benefits and come to appreciate what their body is capable of.

And in an increasingly stressful world, where childhood is not without its stresses, yoga allows kids to take some time out to chill out.

For Stephanie James, from Dublin, bringing her daughter Gabriela, now six, to a yoga class was born out of wanting to find something for her that wasn't competitive. Stephanie feels that with school there's so much emphasis on wanting to win that she simply wanted to find a class that would tie in with her daughter's love of dancing and movement.

A yoga practitioner herself, Stephanie says she was talking to another mother one day who said that her child's yoga day was her favourite day of the week and that she was "blissed out" after her class. She decided to look into it for her daughter.

Rather than use the proper yoga terms for each pose, Stephanie was pleased that Gabriela's yoga teacher used simple language the children could understand.

"The teacher would tell a story about a seed in the ground, growing into a bud and becoming a flower. The children would be doing the correct poses but they were not being weirded out by the yoga names. They all just seemed to get it," she says.

Over the course of the week after her first class, her daughter would show her the poses she'd learned and it was Gabriela herself who decided she wanted to keep the yoga up. Now she's a seasoned devotee three years after doing her first class.

After seeing the benefits to her daughter, Stephanie says she would encourage other parents to let their children give it a go.

"At one stage a teacher showed Gaby how to do the breathing to centre herself and said if she was having trouble sleeping, she could do this. She was able to do that for herself."

Rachel Collins, mother to Sean (12), Saoirse (7) and Tara (5), first took up yoga when she was pregnant with her first child. As her children grew they became used to her unrolling her mat at home and doing her routine.

While Rachel went on to become a fully fledged yoga teacher, it was Saoirse, her middle child, who planted the idea of teaching yoga to children in her mother's mind. Having seen the benefits with her own children, Rachel now teaches children's classes at her Elysium studio in Wexford.

"When I teach the class for kids, I teach it as fun. It needs to be a light-hearted approach," she says.

Aside from the physical benefits of increasing flexibility, Rachel believes yoga gives children the courage in themselves to try things out leading to a great sense of satisfaction for them when they see they're improving.

"With the younger children you don't expect them to do a full yoga posture. You are only exposing them to the fact this is a posture. A five-year-old will learn to play with shape and posture, at the age of 12 they get to be a bit more serious about it and they want to know what it's like when they do it correctly," says Rachel.

With her own children, Rachel says she has seen huge gains from the practice of yoga including better balance and co-ordination.

"I see so many benefits when I look at them and they're able to explore their bodies in a safe way and I see the confidence they develop when they learn to do something they didn't think was possible."

Tucked in behind Smithfield in Dublin, the Elbow Room has been running yoga courses for children for nine years now. Its founder, Lisa Wilkinson, says there's a growing awareness of the benefits of yoga for children with attention problems.

"Children can be fidgety, but if you put pressure on their joints by doing some of the yoga postures, that can really help calm them down," she says.

The Elbow Room has more recently begun running yoga for the special needs child doing one-on-one sessions for children with Down syndrome and children on the autistic spectrum with excellent results, according to Lisa. "Besides the co-ordination and the deep pressure they get from reacting to their body on the floor, they love the relaxation. There's also sound involved with songs and chanting. These can really help the child who is non-verbal," she says.

Elma Toland, of Yoga Therapy Ireland, says because there's no competition with yoga, it's perfect for children and allows them to move at their own pace.

She says it teaches them about posture and an awareness of their body and gives them skills that could be with them for life. "A lot of kids don't feel that great about themselves. There's an avenue to bring an emotional empowerment to them when you teach them to stand like a warrior," says Elma.

"If you are going to stand on one leg, you have to focus. That's the mental focus of yoga. Then there's the breath practice. It does teach kids to mentally focus and pay attention as well as teaching them to relax because children are not stress free."

Yoga Therapy Ireland would like to see schools more open to the possibility of introducing yoga in the classroom.

But Elma knows that with budgets for schools slashed, yoga will be way down the list of priorities.

Despite this she says teachers approach them all the time looking for training on bringing some basic yoga into the classroom and that in time it may become more accepted.

Irish Independent

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