Updated: May 23, 2019
The word yoga means “to unite”. Yoga is a way of uniting the body, mind and soul. It is a healthy way of concentrating the mind by focussing on the current activity in the body and to ‘re-establish’ our inherent ability to be in balance with ourselves. Young children are naturally connected with the present moment and are generally in balance if their immediate needs are being met. Babies particularly are obligate nose breathers, belly breathers and naturally practice pranayama (they only learn shallow breathing later in life). It is also inherent for babies to practice ahimsa, to love unconditionally and toddlers and young children practice yoga poses naturally as part of their development. Indeed, my baby’s favourite thing to do when learning to walk was to hold a downward facing dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) with head on the floor looking back through his legs, the perfect alignment was innate. Conversely though, for many parents, the arrival of a child is the hardest and most stressful journey they have embarked on. Therefore, the benefits of yoga are as powerful for the parents as they are for the child. Through the practice of yoga, both parties can unite with each other and strengthen their bond but also learn from each other (parents learn to relax and enjoy their children and kids learn movement and action).
Unity and bonding for parent and child
According to researcher Allan Schore, the bond between parent and child in the first eighteen months after birth builds the emotional foundation for all future bonding the child will make. Therefore, yoga is an active way for the parent to support and nurture their child's emotional development into the future. In a world full of distractions, where parents are often absorbed in their smartphones and social media, yoga provides the platform to step away from external distractions and focus on learning about each other and to teach children that they are worthy of undivided attention.
Reducing anxiety and the stress response
Today’s lifestyle is fast paced and often overstimulating to our senses creating stressful environments for parents and kids. Children’s nervous systems are immature and can be overstimulated easily. When our sympathetic nervous system is overstimulated our ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered and the physiological response is the release of stress hormones, causing increases in blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and digestive processes (often leading to heartburn). Relaxation techniques and breathing and movement are then required to “break the train of everyday thought, and decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system” (Benson) this can then bring about a ‘relaxation response’ which will regulate your physical state and bring the body back into balance and allow for healing to then take place in the body. Being a parent can be one of life’s most stressful challenges, parents can find themselves in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’. However, young children plunged into a world full of stimulation and new experiences may also find this period of learning scary or stressful. Studies have shown that children today encounter 25% more stress than their grandparents generation. Therefore, taking time out to perform parent and child yoga will help to decrease stress for the parent, focussing them on the present moment and bonding with their child. It will also trigger endorphins in parent and child, the natural ‘feel good’ hormones in the body which combat the stress response. The movement and breathing practices during a yoga class will regulate blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and digestive processes and will be the first step in teaching kids the importance of regulating their own stress response.
Developing coordination and movement
Babies are born with few reflexes such as sucking, rooting, grasping, the Moro (startle) reflex and the Babinski (toe- stretching) reflex. As the baby grows, other movements become more important for development. Homolateral movements (movements of the limbs on the same side of the body) and cross lateral movements (movement of limbs on opposite sides of the body) including movement across the midline (an imaginary line through the middle of the body that separates the left side from the right) are thought the be particularly important developmental milestones and are helpful for developing use of both sides of the brain. These movements are crucial in developing crawling and progressing to walking and hand-eye coordination tasks. Kids yoga classes can aid children in developing these movements through poses which alternate limb movements and cross the midline of the body such as twists, bicycling the legs and toes to nose movements which can increase .
Perhaps the ‘holy grail’ for all parents is more sleep. One of the many benefits of practicing yoga is better sleep (and this applies for adults and children). Yoga engages muscles and then releases them, releasing tension with it. Young children (particularly under 2 years) are still learning to move freely may be storing tension in their muscles and need their parent’s help to release this. As stated above, certain poses in the yoga program are excellent for releasing trapped wind and stimulating a sluggish immature digestive system. Whilst other poses help to stimulate the relaxation response and develop a loving closeness between the parent and child. All of these aspects result in a comfortable child that is relaxed and content enough to sleep better and longer. Hopefully meaning the parent can get some extra sleep too.
We can see that yoga is highly beneficial for both parents and kids by developing lasting bonds between parent and child. Helping to relax both parties (parent and child) is helpful in all aspects of their lives even when not practicing yoga. Encouraging healthy body image and life practices through a holistic yoga practice can only be helpful for a child’s development and will hopefully be skills they use throughout their lives.