Yoga & Kids

Master Yogi, Sarah Mata on Getting Started

Yoga is synonymous with wellness. And lately, research has shown that the benefits for kids are significant and real: improved balance, strength, and flexibility; decreased anxiety, boosted confidence and self-esteem; improved concentration, memory, and academic performance; help with symptoms of ADHD –to name just a few. And with all the stressors kids face today, starting yoga early seems like a no-brainer. But if yoga really is the wonder activity that research claims, why is it so hard to find kids’ classes? The reason, it seems, is that it’s just not that easy to teach yoga to kids (shock!). Evidently, kids don’t like to learn by formula (double-shock!). This is the good news.

So how do we get them engaged in something so beneficial to their growth and development, but so difficult to get right? We sought out the wisdom of Sarah Mata. A yogi’s yogi, Sarah has been teaching for 30 years, has her own studio, Sattva, in Santa Monica, an M.A. in yoga studies, and teaches undergraduate courses on yoga philosophy and practice with one of the last great yoga masters, Srivatsa Ramaswami. Wise, open-hearted, calm yet energetic, Sarah is also a mother and grandmother. Here, she schools us on why kids should do yoga beyond what the research says, how to pick the right class, and even a technique or two.

We know yoga is good for kids, but does it offer something that other sports and activities don’t?
I like all movement and sports for kids, but what yoga offers that is special is a sense of cultivating mind-body awareness, which allows kids to open the door to more subtle practices such as mindfulness and meditation and even turning to their breath.

Can kids get anything out of it besides a little calming and stretching?
Yes! Yoga can work very much with their mind at the level of imagination. Kids normally have a lot more vivid imaginations than us adults, and they can play with the practice in a way that actually brings it to a higher level. They also get to explore some sense of the soul or spirit. Kids normally have a fairly intimate relationship with these deep senses of things, an almost magic.

How does imagination come into it?
If you ask kids to embody the sun while doing the sun salutation, for example, or to embody a cobra while in a cobra pose, they can go pretty far—more than most adults. Kids can connect all the dots—the body, mind, heart, and soul—and often there is not another arena for them to feel all of those things together.

What kind of kids can benefit?
It’s different for all kids, but all kinds of kids can benefit. If they are more introverted or shy, simply finding some strength or even just a lack of inhibition in their body could help them to not be unnecessarily frightened. For the more exuberant, extroverted child, it can be very helpful to learn a kind of containment and poise. And for kids that may not learn the same way as other kids, maybe are having some learning struggles, their sense of well being can be hard to maintain when they get into school and are tested and compared; they can get some negativity projected at them. Yoga can give them a really baseline sense of self and confidence in just being.

How early can they start?
There’s no set age, but you wouldn’t want to force it on a very young child. I’ve seen kids as young as 5 be quite interested. Kids resonate with yoga very young, but you don’t need to think of it as a super disciplined thing right off the bat. In terms of postures, kids are normally fairly nimble and happy to be in their body. They can learn from a knowledgeable parent or teacher to gain some sense of calming down, paying attention, and stabilizing their emotions.

What are some of the immediate benefits?
An activity that could be fun for them. And also the classical notion of Sattva: that there’s a feeling for goodness, for light, for order, for your higher emotions. So being aware of loving feelings, of gratitude—that’s all very immediate and kids usually get it and like it.

What are the long term benefits?
I think just having exposure. Kids can have deep spiritual experiences that they will remember. And it will always be with them: there was a time when I felt this. Some things are quite enduring and others become a distant tendency that could be reactivated. I always try to convey to kids that they can just step back for a few moments during the day, to do something with the voice in their head that’s positive and uplifting. That is the mental part, but it also connects to the body and to the heart. Letting kids have that sense of their capacities is usually very calming and they often will quite readily turn toward it on their own.

Is there a type of yoga that seems best suited for kids?
You don’t want something that is too dogmatically about a school, because you want the child to be seen for who they are. Some systems emphasize only asana and can be quite rigid. It’s best to find someone who has a sense of asana’s place in the whole picture, and is using the breath to basically calm down and tune in, and give some sense that the mind is at play in all of this.

Can yoga be harmful for kids?
I think it can in terms of excessive rigidity and being too dogmatic. Kids can tolerate a lot, and a certain amount of discipline can be good, but an over-focus on alignment, perfection, and posture is not so important. Teachers should be aware of alignment and that kids can be overly flexible; that they have to build some strength and not go to the end range all the time. But if we don’t keep the exuberance and fantastic openness of kids, we lose it. So I think the harm is mostly if the teacher doesn’t have a real respect for the kids, and if the teacher is coming from an excessively physical place and doesn’t have a little bit of heart. That I don’t think is good for kids.

What should parents look for in an instructor?
The connection between the teacher and the child. If the child doesn’t like the instructor, that’s a good red flag that it’s not the right person. There should be some baseline respect, and even better, a kind of affinity. Some people are just wonderful and are good with kids of all ages. But you still want to go with the child’s resonance with the teacher. The goal is to get them to calm down, open up, and shed their defenses—being open, as most kids naturally are.

As an instructor, how do you hold kids’ attention long enough to get them to do yoga?
That’s the trick for all of us, for all ages! That is one of the fundamental notions in yoga– that we’re all distracted all the time. So I try to hold the class in an environment that is set up so the child is not distracted, for example, too many kids or too much sensory input. Also, just seeing what they’re interested in will help harness their attention. Children are often interested in playing, so make it play–become the characters of the asanas or the sun. But teaching is an art and it’s never perfect so you have to get really okay with that. And know that every little, tiny moment that they are able to step back, calm down, and manage their reactions is a lifetime benefit.

Any last thoughts?
The big benefit that is not discussed enough is developing perception and discernment. A teacher is not just trying to get kids to be adept asana practitioners, but to get them to see from a calm place, and to be able to tell if they are acting in a way that is angry or disrespectful. The conveyance of values such as reverence is a very classical part of yoga that kids almost have a hunger for. They understand the difference between when you don’t have reverence and when you do. It’s in the way you teach the asana, the way you greet the child, and the way you say goodbye to the child. Other classic values of yoga are kindness or friendliness to other people, compassion for people, sympathetic joy (to be able to see when other people do good things); and equanimity or the feeling of calm. These values are important. I think kids really understand this, and if you model it they can mimic it until they find it in their own responses.

Could you recommend a simple technique or two that are especially good for calming kids?

Calming down using the breath: Everything is much more vivid for kids, and it can be hard for them to manage their emotions. So having some sense of the breath can be very helpful, as long as it’s not used to repress feelings. Kids can benefit from a basic counting of 10 breaths. Inhale 1, exhale 1; inhale 2, exhale 2; and so on. They can also change it to “inhale love, exhale gratitude”. While they breathe, convey 2 things: that they watch the breath, and make the breath long and slow. Kids can benefit very much from that.

 Calming down before sleep: Having a little ritual helps. The idea of practice could be as simple as saying a prayer at night. Kids can kneel or stand to say a prayer; to add the body they can let their arms go out. There’s a kind of prayer quality in thinking of all of their family that loves them. A gratitude practice is also a great practice for kids before bed. There’s a lot of research on that and it really makes a huge difference.