The benefit of yoga for kids is much the same as yoga for adults: They learn how to bring control over a willful mind.
The issue gets muddied when schools bring in yoga and say it’s just for exercise, or when scientists study yoga’s effects without knowing what causes them.
What is yoga? The stilling of the turnings of thought, according the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali.
The answer is so simple that we make the usual mistake of our fast-paced culture. We fail to pay attention to the answer.
Yoga teaches us how to slow down and pay attention. Learning this improves our health and reduces our stress levels. Today yoga has become synonymous with the poses, asanas, of yoga. The millenia-old practice of yoga remains the same, however: the quieting of the turmoil in the mind. The poses are just the means to that end.
Yoga does not directly lower stress; stress reduction is just a side effect.
Studying yoga's effects on children
A 2013 study cited yoga’s ability to reduce stress and measured physiological responses, blood pressure, in test situations among sixth-graders after a series of yoga classes and exercise classes. The study found no difference in blood pressure levels between the exercise and yoga asana groups.
Choosing a concrete measure, blood pressure, rather than using a questionnaire to determine stress levels eliminates many of the possible biases of the scientists. But that meant they studied stress, rather than what eases stress – the ability to focus.
A 2001 study focused on the test results themselves. That study showed a significant improvement on a series of tasks for the students who took the yoga classes.
Teaching yoga to children
Bringing yoga to children can come in two forms, at home or in classes.
Authors Swati and Rajiv Chanchani bring the serious subject of yoga to the level of children without dumbing it down in any way.
The first, main section of the book, Yoga for Children: A Complete Illustrated Guide to Yoga, outlines the philosophy of yoga, tells how to do the poses with photos, and gives complex stories for many of the poses.
The second part explains how to bring the philosophy, poses and breath work of yoga to children. The authors have studied with Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar since 1975.
They write: "Asanas can be demonstrated, imitated and adapted. The asanas are dynamic, intense and challenging. They help a child to develop willpower, and sensitivity and provide children a means to learn about themselves through a wide range of body movements."
Los Angeles-area classes
Two classes available at Los Angeles area studios have teachers who also have roots in Iyengar yoga.
Koren Paalman uses the conscious movement of poses and breathing, yoga games and storytelling to bring self-awareness and self-confidence to students ages 6 to 12. Her class is Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. A certified Iyengar teacher, she has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in education. For years she taught yoga daily at Los Angeles Unified School District. She studies regularly with the Iyengar family in India.
Beth Prandini teaches a kids yoga class at YogaWorks’ Santa Monica – Montana studio on Tuesdays at 3:30 for children ages 3 to 11. Her class focuses on strength, flexibility and concentration in a non-competitive environment. Beth also holds a master’s in education. She studies several styles of yoga, including with senior certified Iyengar teacher Lisa Walford.