Yoga has become increasingly popular among adults for its numerous health benefits. But did you know that children and teens can also benefit from yoga practice? As a yoga therapist, I have witnessed firsthand how yoga helps children improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
To give you some context. I’m a mum of two boys, who are both wonderfully unique in their own special ways. But aren’t they all! My eldest son recently became a teen. He is continually ‘finding his brave’ to learn how best to apply his High Executive Functioning Autism skills to great effect both personally and socially (in and out of school). However, he is so often struck down with debilitating symptoms when faced with unfamiliar situations (his brain goes into freeze mode when feeling anxious).
My youngest son – once our social butterfly – is slowly re-navigating his way through his first year at senior school post lockdown. Like many of his friends, he struggled with home-schooling and a lack of face-to-face social contact. This resulted in a lower self-esteem and sometimes withdrawal (his brain goes into flight mode when he’s overwhelmed with emotions).
Dealing With Difficult Times
Following a difficult few recent years, we’re all doing our best to cope one way or another. This is why having a greater awareness of our children is critical.
They say behind every negative behaviour is an unmet development need. It’s really up to us as parents to explore what is missing.
I remind my sons often that ‘stress’ can be good. The language we use as parents is important here.
We All Have Mental Health
My message about taking care of our mental health as well as our physical health is clear to students. During assembly talks and school ‘health’ days, I introduce this concept to children/teens by playing an insightful video from the Anna Freud organisation:
The Benefits of Yoga for Children in Balancing Hormones
In particular, certain yoga poses and breathing techniques reduce cortisol, the stress hormone, and increase levels of the calming hormone, serotonin. Additionally, yoga can stimulate the thyroid gland, helping to regulate metabolism and balance hormones related to weight management.
Practicing yoga regularly can also improve insulin sensitivity, which can be beneficial for those with diabetes or other metabolic conditions. Overall, the practice of yoga can help balance various hormones in the body, leading to improved physical and mental health.
The Hidden Dangers of Too Much Stress
In Western society most of us – children and adults alike – are producing too much cortisol. We face chronic stress due to factors like fast-paced lifestyle, social expectations and school/work stress.
Cortisol is naturally produced response to stressful situations. That little boost of cortisol our body produces in the morning, is in fact necessary (especially for teens) to get out of bed and on with our day. Cortisol is also great for keeping us alert when we need to be. For example, in lessons or during a sports match.
However, when cortisol levels remain elevated for an extended period of time, it can lead to a variety of health problems and chronic disease. Excess cortisol causes chronic inflammation which is at the root of many health problems. Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, contribute to high blood pressure, cause weight gain, disrupt sleep quality, and impair cognitive function including academic performance. Prolonged cortisol exposure has also been linked to an increased risk of conditions such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, and diabetes. Therefore, it’s important to manage stress levels to keep cortisol within a healthy range.
The Power of Yoga to Reduce Cortisol in Children and Teens
Yoga is a space where children can purposefully calm their nervous systems and reduce cortisol. This will have a global positive impact on health and wellbeing. It is one of the most effective tools for stress management.
Chronic Stress in Children
It’s the long-term feelings of unresolved chronic stress in our children that, if left unattended, manifests into unhappiness and poor overall quality of life. The stress response system plays out in three ways.
Freeze response: Physical immobility and emotional shutdown. Feeling at the whim of the sympathetic nervous system.
In whatever form a child presents their mental health issues, as parents, carers and teachers we need to work together to help them ‘own’ it and manage it, asking: ‘What can I do to improve the mental health and well-being of my child?’
In the UK today 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a diagnosable mental health problem. In any year, 20% of adolescents will experience a mental health problem. In the united states, nearly 1 in 3 adolescents age 13 to 18 will experience anxiety disorders. Yet in spite of all the information out there on social media networks, when asked their views at a recent annual Teen Yoga Foundation™ conference, young people spoke with one voice, saying “We are aware of the rise in mental health issues but give us the tools to deal with them”.
Benefits of Yoga for Children and Teens
The good news is that yoga directly counters chronic stress in children. Integrating Mindful Yoga into the school curriculum, at the heart of education to support the mental health of all our young people, is Joyful Hearts’ mission. And it’s not just teaching students what the essential tools are, but why they’re helpful, when they can be adopted for different circumstances.
Yoga is a powerful intervention for a child/teen with a mental health concerns who is on the school’s pastoral care radar.
It’s also a great way for forward-thinking schools to prepare the mindset of children about to sit SATs, GCSE’s or A-Level’s.
Yoga can be adapted for all children regardless of any special needs.
Yoga is an intervention worth considering for any concerned parent who notices their child/teen behaving ‘out of character’. In my programme, I work with families and schools to identify and hone those essential ‘missing’ life-skills by developing a tailored Mindful Yoga Wellness programme.
What is Mindful Yoga for Children and Teens?
The term ‘yoga’ literally means to unite, to connect. Taken in its entirety, yoga encompasses all elements of being human. Our physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual health. This holistic approach, in my view is its strength and power.
When practiced regularly, Mindful Yoga is a wonderful way for children to learn powerful tools to deal with chronic stress in their personal, family and social lives.
Next let’s look at what children’s yoga is not! Yoga is not a form of escapism or avoidance. To practice yoga you do not have to wear fashionable Lycra and perform extraordinary feats. That’s not the type of yoga I endorse.
Like everything, yoga poses take practice and requires full attention. It can be challenging. But by modifying yogic poses for different body-types, a good certified yoga instructor should make every yoga session accessible for everyone in the room.
Here’s a summary of the tools that yoga can teach children.
Tool #1: Self-Awareness & Cognitive Functioning
Yoga creates a matrix by which to live, guided by the first law and commandment. Love, compassion, non-harming. In every school I visit I create a calm and relaxing environment. I switch on a diffuser to burn fragrant essential oils to suit the mood of the lesson. I patiently wait for the room to be still.
Students are invited to learn how to identify with the physical feelings of stress in the body. They discover how to create space in the mind to acknowledge sensations, thoughts or emotions in any given moment (without judging, criticising or over-reacting). To do this, we explore the senses in the ‘here and now’, and mindful awareness activities to hone awareness skills moment by moment.
The appropriateness and pace of yoga classes for children and teens is just as important as the content. Many students have long-held feelings of stress or trauma in the body.
Allowing space and time between poses gives the brain sufficient processing time to feel the mental benefits of yoga as well as the physical. Moving mindfully into physical poses using the breath also improves working memory.
Yoga can also increase children’s attention span. A recent study reported that yoga exercise consisting of breathing manipulations, posture control and body balance and concentration enhanced sustained attention and attention shifting among children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
Tool #2: Breath and Its Connection With Children’s Wellbeing
When we breathe in, we activate our sympathetic nervous system (the network that helps the body activate its “fight-or-flight” response). As we breathe out, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system – also known as the body’s “rest and digest” response.
When we lengthen our exhale, we send a signal to the brain to elicit the ‘relaxation response’. This is the antidote to the fight/flight/freeze response. Our heart rate slows and we feel calm.
Yoga helps us achieve homeostasis. This is the healthiest state, when we can easily move from one nervous system to the other. Many of the children and teens I work with do not breathe correctly or effectively. As a Specialist Yoga teacher there are numerous breathing exercises I can use to support the different needs of young people.
Yoga spoiler alert! Yoga uses simple breathing techniques to reduce tension and increase calm in all situations. It essentially “hijacks” the autonomic nervous system. It does this by tapping into the Cranial 10, Vagal nerve (a long, wandering nerve that connects our brain to major organs in our body). This is one of the fascinating neuroscience facts that sits behind yoga.
Tool #3: Mindfulness in Motion – The Body Benefits of Movement in Yoga
Every yoga posture has a purpose and body benefit for children, beyond building physical strength.
Through a balance of carefully designed yoga sequences to achieve a specific goal, yoga may consist of physical postures (“yoga asanas”) such as:
Twisting poses fire up the core and digestive system, whilst boosting energy calmly. This is great for children who may be of a nervous disposition or twitchy.
Backward Bend Pose
Backward bend poses help to open up the heart area, flex the spine and allow more space in the diaphragm to breathe fully.
These poses are especially beneficial for “un-cooperative” students. It’s also helpful for those who feel vulnerable but over-time may start to regain a sense of trust.
This type of pose can improve circulation. It can relax the nervous system, and help young people re-establish self-control.
These all require full concentration and can improve co-ordination and body awareness (e.g. for students with dyspraxia).
This type of pose can help be especially beneficial for students who are self-conscious, have the giggles or are easily distracted.
Side Bend Poses
Side bend poses are incredibly calming and can help overcome anger issues.
Relaxation poses help students move from the physical practice into the meditation part of the class.
Tool #4: The Benefits of Meditation for Children
The most valuable tool of all, is learning how to find stillness and joy within, in the present moment. Meditation in yoga usually takes the form of a guided visualisation. When the mind is quietened the heart is teachable. Through regular practice children will learn emotion regulation naturally and learn to understand the mind-body connection.
When students enjoy the blissful peace of mind at the end of their yoga practices they feel more compassion for others around them. This extends beyond their family and social circles and into community.
Children’s Yoga and Life Lessons
Throughout each yoga class, everyone is encouraged to take responsibility and make sensible choices. Students are supported to tolerate a little discomfort if they can, knowing they can pull back and re-orientate when required. Students are invited to check in with how they are feeling at any given moment. This fine-tunes their self-awareness skills, boost resilience and mental clarity and allow their “fight or flight” nervous system to recalibrate with “rest and digest”.
In time, young people begin to sense a shift as they deepen their understanding and practice of yoga. They take away the tools they are learning on their yoga mats into their daily lives off the yoga mat. Herein lies true yoga’s success! Where sporting or dance disciplines are predominantly skill-based disciplines, Mindful Yoga is an inquiry-based discipline. It is the willingness on the student’s part to learn life-skills in order to survive, protect, connect as a human being in 21st century.
Mental Health Benefits of Yoga for Young People: Summary
I believe passionately that yoga can relieve the chronic stress that so many young people face in our modern world and prevent mental illness. The mental health benefits of yoga for young people will positively impact not just their daily lives, potentially their entire adult lives. Children can benefit from yoga from a young age but people of all ages can practice yoga.
“Teach a child the way they should go and when they’re older they won’t turn from it.” Proverbs 22:6.
Mindful Yoga is a physical activity that can be an alternative or addition to PE lessons. It can be incorporated into ‘Healthy Schools Days’ or ‘Mental Health Awareness week’. Wellness programmes involving Mindful Yoga prepare students for school pressures like upcoming tests and exams. There are so many ways Mindful Yoga supports the mental health of young people.
Encourage your child to explore options available at their school. If yoga is not currently part of your child’s school life, try showing them this article and encouraging them to try school-based Mindful Yoga.
Resources for Trying Yoga at Home
If yoga at school isn’t an option for your child, here are some great resources to take a look at, some of which are free. Why not try yoga as a whole family and aim to incorporate it into your daily routine?
YouTube: Yoga With Adriene (for older children, teens and adults)
App: Feel Better (for older children, teens and adults)
App: Daily Yoga (for older children, teens and adults)
YouTube: Cosmic Kids Yoga (for young children)
Chrissy Longley is a professional Yoga Therapist for Teens, certified to teach yoga anatomy, physiology, social-psychology and neuroscience. Originally Chrissy trained in Singapore with YogaKids while living and working in Asia, seeing the difference a regular practice makes in the classroom for children on the Autistic spectrum. She then left behind her Senior Marketing Management role in the financial sector. Chrissy lives in Marlow, UK with her husband and 2 sons and actively volunteers to support the local community. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you the parent of a 6-16 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.