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Yoga and Children: Should You be Worried?

November 3, 2014

While dropping off the art project your child forgot to place in his backpack this morning, you walk past the elementary school gym. There you see rows of children sitting cross-legged with eyes closed and hands folded. An instructor softly tells them to focus on their breathing and let any thoughts float by like clouds.

Is your gut reaction to:

a) Take a seat and join them.

b) Make some noise to disrupt their trance.

c) Run to the principal and ask when Eastern religions replaced gym.

Yoga is practically mainstream; a multi-million dollar industry complete with its own line of celebrities, equipment and practices. Yet, when yoga is said in the same breath as children, it’s not uncommon for parents to visualize swamis in turbans or barely clad yogis in far-flung ashrams and question whether yoga is indeed okay for impressionable kids. Is it?

Yoga is a religion, isn’t it?

The first truth about yoga is that it’s not a religion and the poses have no religious significance. Yoga’s lineage goes back thousands of years. The poses have traditionally assisted yogis in limbering up their bodies prior to sitting for long periods in order to still their minds. The poses are, in fact, a tool and not aligned to a set of beliefs.

What is yoga supposed to do for my child anyway?

Yoga is great for enhancing flexibility and strength, but it also brings conscious attention to the body. Becoming more attentive to the physical self helps a child learn that she can control her physical reactions. So rather than pushing another child if frustrated or being fidgety during a math lesson, the body awareness gained during yoga can shift reactions from automatic to selective.

In addition, yoga places emphasis on the breath. Remember being upset as a kid and having your mom or dad tell you to count to 10 to calm down? Turns out, Mom or Dad was teaching a physiological and yogic truism—if you can control your breath you can change the agitation level of your nervous system. In short, you can slow down your mental and physical reactions so you can make choices, rather than feel your emotions are making the choices for you. There’s a valuable lesson about non-reactivity and calm that children can harness through yoga—and that applies on and off the mat.

What’s with the mysterious language?

Due to its origin, yogic poses have Sanskrit names and English translations. Some poses have names that translate as animals such as eagle, rabbit, horse, cow or fish. Others describe the shape of the pose like triangle, upward facing bow or gate. Still others carry the name of a sage. Often, children are provided the English translations because they are easier to learn and recall, but use of a Sanskrit word here and there can be helpful in grabbing attention, if only because it is something different.

Why does yoga involve having my child pray?

There is a hand position called “prayer” in which the palms are brought together at the front of the chest, but the gesture itself doesn’t carry prostrations to any deity. In yoga, the palms are brought together to symbolize union—union of the left and right sides of the body, of the physical of the mental aspects of the individual, of the body and the breadth. It relates to being whole and the quiet control that accompanies this pose can help to center and ground children.

Most yoga classes close by bringing the hands together and repeating the word “namaste” (nah-mah-stay). Loosely translated, namaste means, “The light in me recognizes and welcomes the light in you.” This underscores that yoga is about recognizing the good in ourselves and in others and acknowledging that we aren’t so different. In fact, we’re connected.

Will yoga turn my child into a hippie?

Participating in the school’s choir doesn’t mean your child will run off to Broadway. Being on the soccer team doesn’t mean your child is defined by that one sport. Doing yoga doesn’t mean your child is destined for saffron robes and an ashram. Yoga is a tool, just like choir and soccer practice, and there are practical benefits to be gained from practicing it.

Of course, any instructor, whether the subject is karate, science or yoga, can overlay filters of meaning—religious or otherwise–where none organically resides. If you have concerns or questions about any yoga program, talk with the teacher to understand his or her philosophy and curriculum.

Yoga offers adults the ability to become more grounded, more peaceful and less reactive. It offers the same benefits to children. With the right instructor, maybe the two of you could even sit peacefully and breathe together. And what parent wouldn’t want to breathe easier when it comes to their child?

Janet Arnold-Grych lives in Milwaukee and is a mother, marketing manger and yoga instructor.

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