In my last blog post, Physical Benefits of Yoga for Children with Special Needs, I noted that the benefits of yoga extend far beyond muscle conditioning, flexibility, and physical fitness. As children learn about their bodies through yoga postures, they learn about their minds through meditation. Meditation exercises alter the physical structure of our brains. Researchers have found that meditators have increased thickness in parts of the brain associated with attention and processing sensory input. Through meditation, children learn that they can control their thought patterns, their emotions, and their own well being and emotional security.
Learning meditation often begins with breath awareness. Breath awareness is one of the simplest and most naturally effective ways to encourage relaxation and safely regulate emotions. We can influence how we feel simply by paying attention to our breath. When we become anxious or fearful, our breath often becomes short and shallow. Our sympathetic nervous system responds accordingly – it prepares for “fight or flight.” The chemical-electrical impulses that allow for communication between the limbic system and the neocortex become so overwhelmed that communication shuts down. The neocortex is the portion of the brain involved in higher order thinking skills, such as analysis and evaluation, conscious thought, and reasoning. As a result, it is difficult to think clearly and make decisions. Learning becomes impaired. For children, who have so few previous experiences to learn and draw from, their feelings of safety and security are also impacted.
Breath awareness is a vital part of a children’s yoga class, as are developmentally appropriate breathing techniques, often in the form of sound and song. The use of sound, – sound is natural extension of the breath— songs, and chants serves to regulate the breath, increases lung capacity, improve respiratory function, focus attention, and exercise the many muscles involved in speech and articulation. Breath and sound work can easily be adapted to a child’s needs whether she is feeling anxious, excited, lethargic, or fatigued.
Through breathing exercises and meditation techniques, children also learn self-discipline, thus curbing impulsivity and hyperactivity. These practices also promote self-awareness, self-expression, and self-reflection.
Darlene D’Arezzo is founder and director of Kids’ Yoga Circle. She leads yoga classes, workshops and retreats for children, families and teachers. To learn more about mindfulness skills for children with special needs, visit Kids Yoga Circle or Darlene DArezzo Counseling on Facebook.