Our lives are often very busy. Working parents, school, groceries, activities, meal prep and homework can pack in a schedule tight, and with hurried daily lives can come stress. Most of us experience it. But many of us busy adults don’t stop to think of how our stress can affect our kids.
Stress is often thought of as an adult problem but more and more research is pointing out that it affects the whole family. Keeping open, free time in the family’s schedule can help as it allows kids (and adults) to have some ‘down time’, and it gives children a chance to recuperate, while allowing them to find their own ways of having fun, in an unstructured environment.
But sometimes stressors are too big. Getting kids to relax and calm down when they’ve experienced more moderate stress, such as that brought on by the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury can take more involvement and time.
And helping kids deal with toxic stressors-hard challenges like family economic troubles, physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, exposure to frequent or prolonged adversity or violence and caregiver substance abuse or mental illness-is another category, entirely.
(Sadly, research is showing that when kids are exposed to toxic stress continually or from multiple sources, it can actually change the way their minds are wired and take its toll on their physical health, over an entire lifetime.)
So, looking at stress on every level is important. Counseling, professional help, playtime and talking it out can do wonders, to help kids.
A new trend for those who want something a little different is taking things down a different path, though. One of the latest techniques is getting kids to do yoga in order to re-program their brains and bodies for relaxation.
For an insider’s look at the world of kids’ yoga, Ratemds spoke with Ummulkiram Patrawala, kids’ yoga instructor and owner of Blossom Yoga, in Canada.
Ratemds: How did you get started in your practice?
Ummul: I’ve been practicing yoga on and off since my childhood days. I grew up in India, so we had yoga as part of the phys ed curriculum. I kind of lost touch with it and then I re-found yoga, more from a fitness aspect, in my early thirties.
I really took to yoga for the family about 6 years ago, in 2010. All of us were experiencing a lot of anxiety, stress and sadness (due to a death in the family). I was trying to find ways to help myself while at the same time helping the kids heal, because the boys were pretty young then and they didn’t understand death. I figured the best way to do it (heal and treat anxiety) was to use movement.
I thought, how do I help them move on from the life experience that we just had? I discovered meditation first, that’s the part of yoga that I first found.
Ratemds: Meditation can be challenging. How did you approach it with kids?
Ummul: (For our family), we started using a website called winterfeastforthesoul. Every year the site posts mental meditations for adults and children, and we started following the pre-recorded meditations that they have.
You meditate for 40 days in a row and the philosophy is, if you do that, it becomes a habit. So we did that with the boys, every day, every night.
After that, I needed new ways to continue building on what we had just learned because I found it was really calming them down and me down, too.
So, as I explored it a little more. I discovered that yoga, movement, the asanas, the postures would be a good way to do it, so we slowly started doing relaxing postures with the children.
Once I saw the benefits with our family, after a few years, I decided to officially train to become a children’s yoga teacher and help other kids too. So, that’s where the journey of teaching started.
Ratemds: I’m a parent or an educator who is inquiring about your program. Walk me through a typical class.
Ummul: In a kids’ class, it varies by age. If they’re from 4 years old to about 7, the class would start off with relaxation, to get everyone on the same page. We dim the lights, do breathing deep belly breathing, with relaxing music playing. The kids breathe and relax with their stuffies, (toys) on their stomachs.
Then we do a circle and our welcome song and then I’d ask how everyone is doing. We’d do a ‘check in and connection.’
I always ask does anyone want to share. Most kids at that age want to say something. So, we go around the circle.
I then get them started with active movement and poses. I base the classes for young kids on themes: for example, we could be going on a trip to the moon.
With kids, you have to engage their imagination, otherwise you lose them because the poses on their own are meaningless to them, but when there’s a story with it or something that they can imagine, it gives them something to focus on and not be silly. Yoga with children has to playful.
So if I choose a trip to the moon as the theme that day, when I set the class up, after the initial relaxation, I’ll go through a story with the kids, you know, going on the moon or finding different things on the moon, for example.
With this kind of theme, we can pretend to hop and there’s no gravity, and pretend to be astronauts, to lie down between tight spaces, sometimes we “train”.
As a reward for doing poses I usually have a game or something that they’re looking forward to.
So for example, I invented yoga bingo for them, as a way to review poses.
At the end, we spend another 5 minutes relaxing, laying down on our backs, dimming the lights, and doing our breathing. Then we wrap up.
Ratemds: Have you seen the benefits of yoga at work in kids you’ve taught?
Ummul: Yes. At one point, I was working with kids in an after school program. I had some kids that I taught for two years in a row, and I frequently got feedback from parents about how they found their kids were a lot calmer, and also better able to control their feelings.
I had kids who showed signs of having ADD or ADHD, and their parents would say that once the kids liked yoga, it really helped them deal with some anxieties they were having.
Surprisingly, I had a lot of boys in my class. Traditionally, you would think that girls would be coming to yoga class, but in this school, as the word spread, I got a lot of boys- it was about 95% boys. Very energetic, with very limited attention spans.
I also got feedback from the kids. Some of them would tell me, we’ve had such a hard day or my mom woke me up so early, and I really want to relax, so it’s funny because when you watch them, they’re buzzing like bees, but then when you give them the opportunity, they actually want to spend more time just turning off the lights and meditating.
Their favorite part of the class was doing deep breathing with their stuffed animals on their bellies, lying down.
I used to teach twice a week and I think that really helped- just once a week is a good start if you don’t have anything. If you can do more than once a week, though, you can really see the benefits of it.
Ratemds: How can parents do yoga at home with their own kids?
The key is to know your children and what they like. So, if your child is a sports lover, if you start yoga, it has to engage that love of sports.
We do yoga at home in my family-it varies with each kid, because each kid has a different interest.
For younger kids, as I said, you can make it as playful as you want-if there are storybooks you like to read at bedtime, you can make up yoga poses from them.
I use a lot of Eric Carle books, they lend themselves to a lot of fun poses. Pretty much any book that has animals, you can turn it into poses. There are also lots of resources online, there’s a lot of stuff on YouTube.
With my middle son (9 years old), he loves to play games when he does yoga.
With older kids it has to be a little more thought out. With the older kids, it’s talking about the benefit of doing yoga, of what yoga does to our brain.
I talk about how we need to keep that dinosaur brain in check to be calm, and for them to really use that upper brain, which is really our PFC (prefrontal cortex), to make the decisions. We need to connect the lower and the upper brain together to do that, and the way we do it is through our breathing.
With older kids, I find this helps. Once there’s a buy-in, once they understand why they’re doing it, they’re more likely to do it.
Ratemds: What does your future in yoga hold?
Ummul: Ideally, at some point, I would like to spend more time working with children in a school environment because they’re already there, and I think that there’s a lot of benefit to slowing down during your school day and taking that time.
We say ‘timeout’ a lot but I think yoga is time in, going inwards, you’re taking time for yourself.
And having a larger studio that’s dedicated to families and children would be nice- because right now it’s more of a niche. It would be nice to see more families coming out together, because I think that’s where the greater benefit is, when you do things together.
The adult practices yoga but the child never sees their mom doing yoga, so why not do it together. That would be my ideal, to be able to promote that.
But overall, right now I’ve just got my eye on being able to keep on connecting with kids and making a difference through yoga. That’s what I want.
If I can teach one kid to deep belly breathe, that’s what makes me happy.
My kids come back to me and they say, oh you know, somebody said something rude and then I took a breath, breathe in the big me and breathe out the little me, I breathe out those feelings, it’s so rewarding to hear that.
As a teacher, as a facilitator, that’s the part I enjoy the most. The rest will come.