Not only can it help kids relax, but pediatricians say the ancient practice may also be a helpful treatment for asthma, autism, and more.
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Here's a trick that usually calms my children anytime they have more energy than their little body can contain. I simply ask them to touch their toes. Filled with giggles, my kids, ages 4 and 6, spill over their legs, grasping their feet with ten wriggling fingers. "Think you can keep touching your toes to the count of ten?" I ask next. If I'm doing this at bedtime, it's usually a matter of seconds before one of the two is yawning. That's because -- as I learned when I was training to become a yoga instructor -- simply bending forward is calming.

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, but the focus on children continues to grow. In fact, to answer the increasing demand for instructors qualified to teach kids, the Yoga Alliance (an organization that maintains a registry of yoga teachers and schools that meet specific standards) developed guidelines for teachers and schools so they can be credentialed in children's yoga. Although there are currently more than 430 instructors who have registered under the new specialty, it's safe to assume that the numbers are actually higher because registration is voluntary.

Yoga has more to offer than your typical fun activity for little ones. There are studies connecting it to improvements in asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ADHD, and autism. "Mind-body practices can be very helpful for a variety of conditions worsened by stress and anxiety, as well as stress or anxiety itself," says Gurjeet Birdee, M.D., a pediatrician and assistant professor in internal medicine and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville. Now that the evidence of what good it can do is adding up, doctors and parents alike are recommending kids say "Om."

Good Medicine

In an American Psychological Association survey, nearly one third of kids ages 8 to 17 said that they'd recently had health symptoms often associated with stress, such as headaches and stomachaches -- things yoga can address, even in those younger than 8. "Kids can condition the stress response when they're younger in a way that may inform how they react to stress later in life. So giving them tools to help manage anxiety can be very useful," says Dr. Birdee.

Indeed, stress was a factor that brought yoga instructor Debby Kaminsky to schools in Newark, New Jersey. "Kids in the inner city are dealing with violence, shootings, absent parents, no parents. I thought if yoga could work here, it could work anywhere," says Kaminsky, who started the Newark Yoga Movement. And as it turns out, a survey showed that 64 percent of participants were calmer, more relaxed, and less stressed after learning yoga. Now organizations in both Atlanta and central Indiana are modeling school-based programs after Kaminsky's.

Meanwhile, yoga has caught the attention of medical practitioners nationwide. There are classes for kids at leading medical centers around the country, including Mount Sinai Beth Israel, in New York City, Boston Children's Hospital, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, in Memphis. "Our yoga program is still young, but the doctors are open to it," says occupational therapist and yoga teacher Danielle Doria of the children's yoga program that she runs for children with cancer at St. Jude. "They're happy with the results -- we're seeing a decrease in pain and anxiety as well as an increase in endurance, range of motion, and strength. And they're sending more patients our way."

Success Stories

Right now the area with the most exciting potential is autism and other developmental delays, says Dr. Birdee. Yoga practitioner and mother Sharon Manner has experienced this herself. When her daughter, Kerri, was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, Manner turned to yoga for help. She realized almost immediately that something as subtle as deep breathing helped calm her daughter. "When doing yoga with kids, a big focus is on how you breathe," she explains. "I've been able to calm Kerri down by having her next to me as I breathe deeply, allowing her to breathe with me."

As Kerri grew, Manner used other yoga techniques to address the health issues her daughter faced. Kerri's left hip is rotated inward, which causes pain, so Manner helped her get into a tree pose on her left side while lying down. This helped bring Kerri's hip more in line with her right hip. Manner also used progressive relaxation at bedtime. Kerri understood very few words at the time, so Manner massaged Kerri's feet and said, "Just relax, just breathe," then moved up to her legs, stomach, and so on.

Progressive relaxation and other sorts of guided meditation are an important component of yoga, explains Shari Vilchez-Blatt, creator and director of Karma Kids Yoga, in New York City. But it needs to be modified for children. It should be used for shorter periods of time ("Sitting still even for ten to 20 seconds can be a lot for a kid") and may be done through activities such as eating or walking. For example, a child can walk while slowly rolling her foot from heel to toe and focusing on every sensation in her foot. Or she may chew food while focusing on the flavor and texture. These exercises encourage mindfulness.

For Manner, yoga was simply part of daily life. She had no idea that what she'd started with her daughter would lead her to found Ashrams for Autism, a nonprofit organization that brings yoga to children with autism and ADHD in New York City and New Jersey. Manner enjoys watching other children find a sense of calm through yoga just as her daughter did. "With the little ones we teach, it can be chaotic at times in the classroom when we arrive," she says. "Some children find it hard to sit still and many are agitated, but by the end of the class they're lying still, breathing deeply, and calm. It's amazing to see. The deep relaxation is a miracle every time."

Research from Columbia University corroborates Manner's experiences. In fact, in their study of one six-week program that included yoga, more than 90 percent of the participating children ages 6 to 11 with ADHD improved their academic performance. Researchers suspect that yoga spurs an increase of the brain chemical dopamine, which has been linked to attention, movement, and learning. Levels are low in children with ADHD.

Kid doing Yoga
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

The Research Quandary

Unfortunately, because there is little funding for studies that focus on yoga, the ones that exist are considered inconclusive or at least preliminary. "When you're evaluating studies you look at their size, the quality of reporting, and the design," explains Dr. Birdee. "For many yoga studies one of those factors is lacking." (The ADHD study, for example, looked at fewer than 80 children. It's admittedly a stretch to definitively conclude that yoga would work for all kids who have ADHD.)

Still, medical practitioners are working to change that. Occupational therapist Doria, of St. Jude, will conduct a pilot study to look at the effects of yoga on pain relief. She'll also attempt to quantify other physiological benefits such as strength, flexibility, and balance.

She says she's fortunate to have the resources to do this research at St. Jude, but she may need to seek funding outside the hospital to move past her preliminary findings. In the meantime, the lack of data is hindering doctors who want to help patients through yoga. They know it could help but have no scientific proof showing how or why. Still, the risks associated with yoga are minimal, so it's reasonable for a doctor to suggest that patients practice yoga in order to supplement conventional treatments, says Dr. Birdee.

Rasik Shah, M.D., director of pediatric pulmonary medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, regularly teaches his asthmatic patients yogic breathing techniques. Doing this, Dr. Shah says, has multiple benefits, including improved lung function; he says that yoga has helped his patients double the amount of oxygen they inhale. And yet he still does not routinely suggest his asthma patients take yoga classes, in case a child ends up in a class that doesn't teach proper breathing. Dr. Birdee agrees, saying that there's no way to guarantee the yoga studio closest to home will address the needs of a child's specific medical condition. For example, if a class doesn't emphasize meditation, it would do little to address the lack of focus faced by kids with ADHD.

But ultimately, yoga can empower kids to master self-regulation, says Dr. Birdee. We don't want our children to throw tantrums when they are angry and frustrated, to be impatient, or to give in to the desire to grab any toy they want without thinking of others. Through yoga, kids could reduce all of these behaviors by regulating their emotions themselves.

As for me, I'm still doing forward folds but with more than just my own children. I've opened a kids' yoga studio called Yoga Playhouse, where I get to witness their growing ability to rein in their emotions and build their confidence while managing their stress. Recently, one 4-year-old spent his first class running in circles and talking to anyone who would listen, including himself. During the final resting pose, he rolled up in his yoga mat like a burrito and yelled loudly that he did not want to close his eyes. This made sense to me later when his mom told me how he struggled with anxiety that kept him from falling asleep at night. Not long after, I led a class on coping with fear. I taught the students how to "blow" their fears away with a deep belly "fear-fighting breath." As we then practiced poses, that little boy followed along. And this time during our final resting pose, his mat lay flat as a tostada. He lay atop with his eyes closed. The gentle rise and fall of his stomach told me he had finally relaxed.

Yoga Tricks for Kids

Instructors rely on these moves -- so feel free to steal any the next time your happy baby transitions into cobra pose.

To calm down Teach your toddler to inhale deeply, then exhale "Mooo" (as a cow), "Bzzz" (bee), or "Baaahh" (sheep).

To keep cool If your little one whines about being hot, teach "air-conditioner breath": She should curl her tongue upwards, making a "U" shape, then suck cool air onto her tongue. Then she can press her tongue to the roof of her mouth.

To get sleepy Ask your child to close his eyes and imagine he's on a fluffy cloud floating in the sky or on an ice cube melting. He won't even know he's meditating and will be drifting off before you know it.

To improve mood Bring your kid into child's pose by asking her to roll up in a ball facedown as if she were an egg. Cover with a blanket. Press your hands gently but firmly down her spine as you ask, "I wonder what my baby will look like?" Pretend she's a dinosaur or a chick, or anything, really -- just make a big fuss when she cracks a "claw" out from under the covers.

Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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