When I was introduced to yoga through dance training, I wasn’t aware of the many facets of yoga beyond the physical postures (i.e. asana). While the physical benefits of yoga are substantial (e.g. improved flexibility/mobility, greater circulatory health, and greater endurance), it doesn’t take long to realize that what may have started as a physical practice, blossoms into so much more.
Approaching yoga to only experience the physical postures is like trekking across the country to an absolutely gorgeous wilderness to only experience the most popular trails of the front country. While you will still be inspired by the grandeur of the land, and even reap the physical benefits of this approach, you are skimming the surface of what can be a life altering practice with deeper benefits for you and your loved ones.
Science supports what many yogis and yoginis already know. In addition to the many physical benefits, studies show that yoga significantly alters the body at the cellular and molecular level; impacting gene expression, and improving physical and psychological well-being. A growing body of research shows that yoga decreases the sympathetic nervous system response, which is triggered through stress.
Stress negatively impacts the developing brain, impedes learning, memory and performance, and results in physiological and behavioral issues. We often carry this unhealthy cycle of stress from childhood into adulthood. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, a growing number of children report elevated stress levels.
In order to break this unhealthy cycle, we need positive ways to approach stress. Yoga is a valuable tool for the young and old to reduce stress and foster a healthy and balanced life. Yoga teaches our children awareness, relaxation and calming strategies, and an attitude of gratitude. Developing positive emotions actually allows higher brain functioning to occur, which means it improves the learning process! Practicing yoga together as a family is not only healthy for your body and mind, but it’s also fun and accessible!
Yoga can be done just about anywhere – at home, on a hike, on the river (e.g. SUP yoga), camping, or at school. Best of all, you don’t really need any props, it’s portable, and with some guidance, anyone can do it! Here are a few suggestions to get you started. Allow your little one(s) to fully explore the poses, and remember to have fun!
#1 – Lizard Sunning on a Rock
Partner poses are perfect for families to build trust and safety through play. One person comes to Balasana, or “child’s pose”. Start kneeling, then widen your knees with the big toes touching, and bring the chest down to the ground between your knees. Sit the hips back towards the heels. The arms can either be in front to get a stretch across the sides of the body, or by your torso with the palms facing up to release shoulder and neck tension. The other person sits down directly behind the one in child’s pose, and then slowly leans back on top of them so they are facing upward. The top person can get a deep shoulder stretch by opening their arms either above their head or to the side with the palms facing up. Stay for a few breaths, and then come out of the pose gently as this can be a deep stretch, but will leave you feeling relaxed and grounded.
#2 – Lion’s Breath (Simhasana)
Pranayama, or yogic breathing, can balance out the sympathetic (i.e. “fight, flight and freeze”) and the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. “rest and digest”). Lion’s breath is a fun one that children love since they get to pretend to be a lion AND get to stick out their tongue! This is a great way to release tension while playing around. Sit comfortably. Take a big inhale, and then exhale sticking your tongue out and sighing “haaa” with your gaze up to the space between the brows. Do this three times, and then come back to the natural breath and notice how you feel.
#3 – Plank Pose/Staff Pose (Adho Mukha Dandasana)
This is a great pose to strengthen the body and develop breath awareness. This pose stimulates circulation to the heart and lungs, and leaves you feeling strong and powerful. You can also make this into a partner pose by stacking one person on top of the other either in plank pose, or any other pose.
Start on all fours in a table top position with the shoulders stacked over the wrists and the hips over the knees. Step the feet back so the head is in line with the hips. Press firmly down through the hands with the fingers spread evenly. Hold for a few breaths. You can come back into child’s pose after plank pose to stretch the shoulders.
#4 – Throne Pose
Acro yoga requires good communication, and is a great way to play as a family. The person who is the “base” (i.e. on the bottom) lies on their back with their feet stacked over their hips. The “flyer” (i.e. the person on top) stands over the person as the base bends their knees to receive the flyer’s sitz bones on their feet.
Once the feet are positioned, the base straightens their legs and the flyer sits up tall to balance in a chair position. This requires some strength and agility, and is a great way to strengthen the core, work on balance, and have fun! Come out of the pose similar to the entry. The base slowly bends their legs to let the flyer touch back down with their feet to either side of the base on the floor. This pose helps instill confidence and lays a good foundation for teamwork.
#5 – Easy Pose (Sukhasana)
Eline Snel, the founder of the Academy for Mindful Teaching, calls this one “sitting still like a frog” in her children’s mindfulness book. This one works best after some movement to get all the sillies out. Begin by sitting “criss cross apple sauce” with the eyes closed. Take a big breath in through the nose and a huge open mouth exhale as if you are blowing a dandelion.
Sit very still and bring your thoughts down from your head to your belly. Feel your belly rise and fall with your breath. Notice if you can hear and feel your breath. Try this for as long as you can. When you are done, notice how calm and relaxed you feel. This is a good one to do as a reset throughout the day, and introduces self-control and awareness of body and breath – important precursors for higher level thinking tasks.