Can children benefit from yoga?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My 8-year-old daughter has expressed an interest in taking a yoga class, but I don’t want to waste my money. Can children really benefit from yoga?

DEAR READER:

Yes, they can. I spoke to Dr. Marlynn Wei, who is a psychiatrist, certified yoga teacher, and author of the upcoming Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga. She noted that yoga and mindfulness (a related practice) have been shown to improve both physical and mental health in children.

To start with, yoga improves balance, strength, endurance and aerobic capacity in children. A growing body of research has shown that yoga can also improve focus, memory, self-esteem, academic performance and classroom behavior. It can even reduce anxiety and stress in children.

Emerging research studies suggest that yoga can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It may do so by improving the core characteristics of ADHD: inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. It can also boost school performance in children with ADHD.

A growing number of schools now integrate yoga and mindfulness into physical education programs or classroom curriculums. And many yoga studios offer classes for school-age children.

Here are some yoga exercises for kids. You can try these at home with your daughter before signing her up for a class:

SIMPLE YOGA BREATH

(1) Take in a deep breath and hold it for a count of three.

(2) Breathe out forcefully, as if you’re blowing out a candle.

(3) Repeat this for five cycles of breath.

FLYING BIRD BREATH

(1) Stand tall, with arms at your sides and feet hip-width apart, facing forward.

(2) Imagine being a beautiful, strong bird.

(3) Pretend to prepare to fly by inhaling and raising your arms (“wings”) until your palms touch overhead. Keep your arms straight.

(4) Exhale slowly as you bring your arms back down to your sides, palms facing down.

(5) Repeat in a steady motion with each breath: Inhale as you raise your arms, and exhale as you lower your arms.

Your daughter may also enjoy simple meditation. For example, before bedtime, turn off all electronic devices and reflect on the day with her. Pose questions like, “What are you grateful for today?”

Here’s another mindfulness meditation exercise:

(1) Find a comfortable seated position or lie down.

(2) Close your eyes.

(3) Try to listen to every single sound in the room.

Not being a pediatrician, my only experience with yoga for children involves a friend. Her son was struggling with self-confidence, and it was affecting how he did in school, academically and socially. Practicing yoga gave him a sense of self-control that my friend is sure turned him into a popular and gifted student.