Stop for a moment; close your eyes. Take a long, slow, deep breath. Allow your exhale to gently leave the body with no effort. Now notice how you feel. Are you less anxious? Are you more relaxed? Do you feel more control over your thoughts?
More than likely, the answer to all of the above is yes. Welcome to the power of your breath, or pranayama as the yogis (people who practice yoga) say.
The health benefits of yoga for children
That exercise is a quick taste of yoga breathing offered by Tonia Kulp, certified yoga instructor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
“Simple yoga breathing is a powerful tool in managing our emotions, energy levels, feelings and thoughts,” Kulp explains. “Controlled, conscious breathing can decrease anxiety, help to manage pain and discomfort, aid in the balancing of unpleasant thoughts and emotions, and even help fight inflammation that can lead to disease. And breathwork is easy, free and accessible to anyone — especially our youngest yogis.”
Kulp works with children and parents or caregivers to introduce the concepts and practices of yoga in ways that are appealing and easy to follow at home. One of her key messages for parents is to introduce the idea of breathwork in ways your child will understand and enjoy.
Yoga breathing for all ages
Here are some of Kulp’s suggestions to try with your child at home:
Young children respond positively to games and activities that inspire yoga breathing.
- The youngest yogis enjoy breathing like a bumble bee, inhaling slowly and exhaling to a gentle buzz or hum. This simple technique helps the child bring their awareness inside, creating a grounded feeling.
- Pretending to softly blow out birthday candles is an excellent way to show a toddler how to collect their emotions after an outburst or tantrum. Keep it fun and pretend to enjoy a slice of birthday cake to top it off.
- A 3-year-old may enjoy “balloon breathing” — pretending to blow up an imaginary balloon by breathing out slowly and then deflating it by breathing in slowly. You can make the exercise visual by holding an expandable sphere (available at toy stores as a Hoberman sphere) and having the child grow and shrink it with their hands as they breathe. This slow, controlled breathing creates an overall sense of peace and calm.
- Children love to breathe like bunnies and snakes, inhale and exhale through a tiny straw, or even blow away the wisps of a dandelion to create a summer snow shower.
Older children and teens can learn more complex yoga breathing techniques.
- Alternate nostril breathing is done by placing the index and middle fingers of one hand between your eyebrows and resting your thumb and ring finger on either side of your nose. Close your eyes and breathe deeply in and out through your nose. Now use your thumb or index finger to press on and close your right nostril and inhale slowly and deeply through the left nostril. Hold that breath in for a brief pause, then change your pressure to the left nostril and exhale through the right side. With your next breath, inhale through the right nostril, pause and exhale through the left. Repeat that alternating cycle five to 10 times. The exercise balances the right and left sides of the brain and body, and can be used to calm and bring a sense of clarity to an overstimulated mind.
- When a child or teen feels agitated or tense, roaring like a lion can help to release bottled up emotions and regain feelings of strength and confidence.
- Three-part breathing brings a greater balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Slow, mindful, diaphragmatic breathing can help children better manage their pain by activating the body’s own “calming system.”
Children of all ages can feel their bodies relax when they breathe deeply and slowly. They enjoy sharing how their yoga breathing makes them feel, both inside and out.
“Yoga breathing is a powerful tool,” says Kulp. “It can help children feel a sense of control when dealing with everyday challenges or with a difficult diagnosis or illness. When shown the way, children will surprise us by the many ways they use their learned breathing techniques.”
We parents can take a lesson from our youngest yogis, too. Rather than worrying about doing something “just right,” take a moment, sit back to back with your child and just feel the movement of one another’s breath. And smile. That’s the magic.
Contributed by: Tonia Kulp, E-RYT 200, RYT 500, YACEP