“Children are natural yogis. Free-flowing movement is practically the definition of childhood,” says Gregory C. Hedler, MSW, LCSW. Hedler is a pediatric oncology social worker at the Cancer Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is one of CHOP’s integrative therapists focusing on yoga as an intervention within the medical setting.
It’s convenient, then, that a technique that comes so naturally to children also has powerful health and wellness benefits, according to patient reports at CHOP and a growing body of national research. “Basic yoga breathing and a simple pose or two can be important tools for managing a range of stresses and pain as well as everyday challenges,” says Hedler.
When children practice yoga, they learn the important difference between a mindful response and emotional reactivity. “A mindful response is breath-based, calm and effective,” says Hedler. “Reactivity is stress-driven and usually unhelpful.”
Another bonus: “Yoga helps a child connect to his breath and body in an empowering way,” adds Hedler. “This can especially help a child cope with an illness that causes a sense of helplessness. Or it can help with a medical challenge that makes a child feel detached from his body and avoid activities he used to enjoy.”
Yoga is not only for children who are sick or injured. According to Hedler, it can boost a sense of well-being in all kids. Here, he offers ways children of all ages can incorporate simple yoga-style breathing and poses into everyday life and challenging situations.
When your young child is cranky
Sit with your child for a couple of minutes and show her how to play with her toys in a “yoga-like” way. Encourage her to inhale as she raises the toy over her head and exhale as she brings the toy back to the floor.
For example: “Breathe in while you fly Barbie to the moon. Breathe out as you bring her back down to Earth.” This teaches the basic movement and breathing of yoga. Talk to her about how the breath and movement calm her. Let her know she can do this trick (without a toy) whenever she feels cranky and wants to feel better.
When your young child needs to focus
Teach him how to take a Balloon Breath. Show him how to inhale through his nose to fill his belly with air until it’s big like a balloon. Then, he can exhale through his mouth to let out all of his breath. “This is a great transitional breath,” explains Hedler. “It helps a child switch from an overexcited or hyperactive state to a calm, focused state.”
When your older child feels stressed out
Before she walks out the door to head to her presentation, college interview or big game, encourage her to try Child’s Pose. This is the classic resting pose in yoga where the forehead touches the floor.
“Child’s Pose can directly stimulate the front part of the brain, where higher thinking lies,” says Hedler. “By directing energy and attention there, this pose can prevent the primitive brain’s stress response from continuing to be revved up,” he explains. The possible result: a sense of calm and awareness.
How to practice Child’s Pose: Your child can begin on her hands and knees and then sit on her heels. From that starting position, have your child sit up straight with a strong spine and take a deep breath as she reaches up towards the sky. Then, on the exhale, bow forward at the same time until the forehead touches the floor. Her torso can be draped over her thighs as the arms either continue to reach forward with both palms pressed firmly into the floor or reach back towards her heels.
When your child has frequent meltdowns
Teach him “even-part” breathing to replace stress with calm: Inhale for a count of three; hold his breath for a count of three; exhale for a count of three. This is an easy technique your child can learn, carry around with him as an effective tool for stress management, and perform relatively discreetly in public situations.
When your child is anxious about getting a shot or other medical procedure
Make eye contact with your child and talk her through the even-part breathing technique. “It’s powerful for a child to hear her parent guide her breath,” says Hedler. “It directs attention to your soothing voice, stimulates calm breathing, and delivers this reassuring take-charge message: ‘I’m going to help you get through this, but I need you to listen to me.’”
Children under the age of 5 who struggle with the even-breath technique can pretend to blow bubbles or a pinwheel. Practicing at home with real bubbles or a pinwheel can be especially effective. “Your child gets to see how powerful her breath is when she creates bubbles or makes the pinwheel spin, “says Hedler. “Later, in the scary moment, you can say, ‘Remember how strong your breath is? Pretend to blow bubbles to help you feel how strong you are right now.’”
And for the adults: When you feel yourself getting angry at your child
For common stress flashpoints every caregiver faces — like when your child throws a huge tantrum in the middle of the grocery store — it can be very effective to take a few deep breaths instead of losing control of your own temper.
“When a parent teaches by example, it shows a child the role that choice plays — and that a mindful response makes everyone feel better,” says Hedler. “Your child can learn this choice, too.” And remember, calm breathing can be contagious. “When one person in a room starts to practice mindful breathing, everyone around them can experience the benefits. Yoga can be another tool that can support children and caregivers alike without the pressure or need to always say the ‘right’ words. Just breathe!”