As a meditator and yoga practitioner for most of my adult life, I practiced both right up until the end of each of my pregnancies. By the time I reached my eighth month, I looked like a tomato ready to burst and had to modify most of my yoga poses. Meditation was only comfortable while lying down. But when it came time for med-free labor, I was very happy to have had months of practice at keeping my mind and body relaxed.
Now that I have two kids, it’s much harder to take the time to practice yoga or meditation on a daily basis. Often, the only way to get in some “me” time is by practicing with them. I get out my yoga matt, put on a DVD, and get the downward dogs and triangle poses flowing. My kids usually join in, at least for a while (though they just as frequently try to crawl under me). Likewise, at night when my kids are trying to sleep but don’t quite want me to leave the room yet, I’ll sit at the bottom of their beds and meditate. This has brought about a series of questions: What are you doing? Why? My daughter has had me teach her the basics.
We all know adults who take yoga, meditate, use herbal remedies, visit an acupuncturist, or rely on other alternative therapies. But at what age is it appropriate to introduce these practices to kids? Is there an age that’s too young? Parents need to decide on a child-by-child and practice-by-practice basis, of course, but there are many people—including some in medical settings—relying on these therapies for their children.
ABC, Easy As Downward Dog
In many parts of the world, children learn yoga as toddlers, just as our kids learn their ABCs. In the United States, you can now find yoga classes for babies and moms or for slightly older kids in most sizable communities.
Eve Adamson, coauthor of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga with Kids, believes that kids can’t start yoga too young. “As soon as kids are old enough to follow even simple instructions, they can participate in yoga classes for young children, or do yoga at home with a parent or older sibling. For children at this age, yoga is like play (one could argue it should also be so for adults!). Many yoga poses are designed to imitate animals and plants in the natural world. Kids usually think it’s fun to do dog pose, cat pose, tree pose, mountain pose—they know what those things are and this kind of play makes perfect sense to them.”
Adamson also says, “Children also love to make up their own poses, which is great! When I wrote the book, in fact, my son Angus was just three years old and invented what he called ‘Owl Pose.’ Being a proud mother, I put the pose in the book, of course.”
As for benefits, kids can expect to learn a lot about their bodies through yoga. They’ll become more focused, learning to quiet their minds in order to balance or go deeper in specific poses. Neither of my kids can do tree pose (which may sound like a cinch until you try it) when they’re laughing. But if they manage to quiet down and stare at one spot, they suddenly grow very still and tall. It’s an amazing transformation!
Another benefit includes seeing the strengths and weaknesses of others’ bodies in a non-competitive setting. Everyone has a yoga pose at which he or she shines, and everyone has a dreaded pose. It doesn’t matter your height, weight, or flexibility.
Traditionally, the athletic movements we associate with yoga are only one part of the practice. The ancient yogic tradition also includes breathing and meditation. So, it’s not surprising that Adamson also recommends meditation for kids. “Any child willing to try meditation is certainly old enough for it.”
The most widely practiced form of meditation in the world is focusing on the breath, counting breaths in and out. This is easily adapted to even very young children. When my kids are upset, I try to help them be aware of their breath. Over time, they’ve learned the difference between breathing into their chests, which is a relatively shallow breath, to deeper breaths that fill their bellies. The latter is more likely to help them slow down.
Visualizations of favorite places or moments in time, such as a trip to the beach or a quiet picnic under a tree, can be developed with the help of an adult. When my daughter feels sad, she likes to remember being at the ocean and has an audio recording of her dad’s voice taking her through the walk to the water, playing in the sand, and the smells and sounds of the beach. She’s listened to it enough times that she can repeat much of it on her own, even if she’s without an audio player.
A Sun Salutation a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Yoga and meditation are wonderful practices for healthy living and for staving off stress in kids. But they’re also used as complementary therapies for children dealing with illness or pain. For example, the journal Cancer Control reports that up to 84 percent of children have used complementary therapies along with conventional medical treatment for cancer. (Complementary therapies are those practices used in tandem with Western remedies, while alternative therapies are used in lieu of a Western practice.) Massage, touch (such as reiki), herbal remedies, acupuncture, aromatherapy, specialized diets, yoga, visualization, and meditation are among the complementary and alternative practices used by children and their families to help curb the effects of a wide range of illnesses and disorders, including diabetes, eating disorders, constipation, ADD, and insomnia.
Just as with my experience with labor pains, it seems that kids can only benefit by already having some familiarity with complementary therapies prior to needing them for more serious reasons. We could all use a few more coping mechanisms, so why not start early?