The ancient practice has helped many through various lockdowns, and kids can also reap the benefits of yoga and mindfulness. Here, yoga teachers across the country share their advice
Yoga has been a lockdown lifeline for millions of people. Adults discovered Adriene Mishler, an American yoga instructor whose free YouTube channel surged in popularity during the first lockdown. Children discovered Cosmic Kids, a joyous kids’ yoga app that went mainstream amid the pandemic.
The benefits of yoga are the same for children as they are for adults. And as kids’ yoga classes pop up all over the country, the practice is now more accessible to children than ever before.
Meanwhile, a growing number of children are practising yoga in school. They have the full support of President Michael D. Higgins, who recently said he’d like to see yoga taught to schoolchildren across Ireland.
Children’s yoga and mindfulness has proven benefits. It increases their strength and flexibility but it also improves mental wellbeing and promotes self-regulation. By practising yoga poses, children learn to manage anxiety and cope with stress.
“Kids are so approachable when it comes to yoga and mindfulness,” says Kildare-based kids’ yoga teacher Jelena Slicker of Ella Bella Yoga. “They’re still creating their pathways whereas we as adults have already created our habits.”
Jelena regularly practises yoga with her five-year-old daughter Ella and says it has helped her little girl express her feelings and manage her emotions, particularly during the pandemic.
“She can go from being really happy-go-lucky to having a full meltdown and this is where our little magic tricks of breathing come in,” she says.
Kildare-based kids’ yoga teacher Sarah Cahill of Play Like Apes had a similar experience with her daughters Ellen and Lucy, who started practising yoga when they were in pre-school. “Lucy is sensitive and reactive and I could really see the benefits of the breathing exercises. Now she’s able to focus on her breath and then she can express herself.”
Don’t know your downward dog from your pigeon pose? Don’t worry. We spoke to kids’ yoga teachers across the country to find out how parents can get started.
Explain it to them in age-appropriate language
Children will naturally want to know what yoga is and why they’re doing it. But it’s better to keep explanations simple and child-friendly. “We definitely don’t get too technical when we explain it to kids,” says Sarah. “I always tell them that the word yoga means ‘union’ so it’s not just one thing. It’s a couple of different things. I tell them that while we move our bodies, we’ll also focus on breathing and then there’s an element of relaxation and mindfulness.”
Alignment doesn’t have to be perfect
Kids’ yoga is a world away from the acrobatic poses we see all over Instagram. Precise alignment isn’t the focus when teaching children, rather it’s about them learning to bring attention to their bodies. “We’d never correct a child in a pose, unless we think they’re going to pop a knee or something,” explains Sarah. “But we guide them through the poses. We might ask them how it feels in their body. Does it feel good and if it doesn’t, let’s shift it a little.”
The trick, adds Sarah, is not to jump in and correct it for them. “You want them to understand what feels good and what feels bad in their body so that they learn to self-regulate.”
Keep it fun and playful
At the most simple level, kids’ yoga is about playful movement. So incorporate storytelling, dance, props and themes. “Let’s say your child loves all the jungle animals, then you can go on a yoga safari trip. Let’s say your child is an explorer, you can practise yoga in the garden and theme it with birds, trees and even bugs.”
Kids love animal poses and movements, says Sarah. “One minute they’re squatting down like a frog and then they jump up and they’re roaring like tigers — they really get engrossed in it.” They love two-person stacking exercises too. “It’s so much fun to do a double down dog with someone else,” she says.
The ‘freeze game’ is another great idea, says Jelena. “Ask kids to pick their favourite song and start dancing, then stop the music and freeze into a yoga pose. You will be amazed by how many yoga poses children know before you even introduce them.”
Introduce breathing exercises (but keep it fun)
When introducing kids to breathing exercises, it’s important to keep it playful and imaginative, says yoga and breathwork teacher Brian Malone of The Breathwork Club. “Try to make sure they’re breathing through the nose. When kids get excited they can fall into breathing through the mouth. So it can be helpful to get them to think about the position of their tongue. If they place it behind the back of their front teeth, just below the gums, that will naturally keep their mouth closed and help them breathe through the nose.”
Exhaling through the mouth will slow everything down, he says, and the visualisation of blowing will help them exhale a little longer and move them into a slightly more relaxed state.
“One of the main techniques for teaching kids is ‘bubble breathing’. You inhale through the nose and then you exhale as if you’re blowing bubbles. They can be big bubbles, small bubbles, they can imagine that the bubbles are going up into the sky.
“It’s also good if the parent does the breathing exercise with the child,” he adds. “For the kid to be calm, the parent needs to be calm too.”
Take it outside
Practising yoga outside gives children an opportunity to connect with nature and engage in imaginative play. Kids also love mindful walks that incorporate all the senses, says Jelena. “You ask them to name five things they see; four things they feel around them; three things they can hear and two things they can smell. It’s a great introduction to mindfulness and helps them remain present.”
As part of her weekly online classes, Kerry-based kids’ yoga teacher Dominique Ammann Barry sometimes asks her students to bring their tablets outside to their gardens for barefoot grounding, which is said to stabilise the body’s physiology. “We take off our shoes and just stand there for a couple of minutes, and the benefits are astonishing.”
Do different poses at different times of the day
Some yoga poses are designed to energise the body while others promote physical and emotional relaxation. Dominique prefers to work with more invigorating poses like sun salutations (or ‘Hello, Sun!’ in kids’ yoga language) during morning classes. “A balancing posture like tree pose [standing on one leg with arms splayed up and out] is also really good in the morning to get children focussed for the day.
Dominique’s after-school classes are slower paced and more restorative. “It’s more a wind-down because they’ve had a full day. It gets them on a more even keel for the evening.”
If a child is preparing for bedtime, she recommends no more than three relaxing postures, such as Happy Baby [lying on your back and holding your feet] or Legs Up the Wall.
Cultivate gratitude and set positive affirmations
Yoga classes can give kids an opportunity to cultivate gratitude and practise positive thinking. Dominique encourages her students to repeat affirmations like “I am strong” and “I can be anything I want to be” during her classes, while other teachers encourage children to set intentions for the week ahead.
This has become a daily practice for Sarah and her two young daughters. “In the morning, I like to practise gratitude with the girls. We talk about the things we’re grateful for and we set a little intention for the day. We often do, ‘Today I’ll do my best and I’ll be kind to myself and others’. It just sets the tone for the day.”
Create a ‘mindfulness corner’
Jelena has created a designated space in her home where she stores all the props for her classes. She’s named the area ‘mindfulness corner’ and her daughter has added some of her own creations which she likes to go through before bed time. “You could also ask your kids to create a relaxation box and put all their favourite things into it,” she says.
Look for free online resources
YouTube is chock-full of kids’ yoga videos for all age groups, including the aforementioned Cosmic Kids and Dominique’s Yoga Kids Kerry. If you’re looking for a child-friendly guided meditation, Jelena recommends Louise Shanager’s Creative Mindfulness channel.
See ellabellayoga.com, playlikeapes.com, @yogakidskerry and thebreathworkclub.ie