Suzanne O'Keeffe - Maynooth University - Froebel
Practicing yoga has rich learning potential for children as a life skill and a way to experience joy in movement, writes Dr Suzanne O'Keeffe of the Froebel Department of Primary and Early Childhood Education at MU's School of Education.

Rooted in over 5,000 years of ancient Indian spiritual texts and traditions, yoga has become a billion-dollar business with a celebrity cult following including Jennifer Aniston, Miley Cyrus, and Ryan Gosling. As a concept yoga is, perhaps unsurprisingly, flexible. It is both ancient and hip, embedded in one of the world's oldest living religious traditions and yet has a strong contemporary following due to its holistic benevolent intentions.

Its suppleness has yielded all sorts of novelty spin-offs including goat yoga and hot yoga, but this timeless gentle practice has also had profound and powerful effects on global cultural and educational policy. In 2015, the United Nations recognised that yoga provides a holistic approach to health and wellbeing and that the benefits of practicing yoga will have a positive impact on world health.

In 2016, UNESCO inscribed yoga on their list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As the forthcoming Irish primary school curriculum seeks to provide opportunities for children to experience joy in movement and to reflect on the impact of movement on personal fulfilment, meaning and their wider wellbeing, it is difficult to ignore the rich learning potential that yoga has for children as a non-cognitive life skill.

Why should children practice yoga?

1. Children get stressed too. The bustling pace of school life, homework, online life, extra-curricular activities, and the busy schedules of parents/guardians can often cause children to feel anxious. By learning the techniques of relaxation, breathwork and self-regulation, children learn how to rest the thinking mind, move into a feeling of flow, and connect with innate joy.

The Mental Health of Children and Young People (2023) reported that in 2019, anxiety and depressive disorders accounted for almost two thirds (63%) of mental disorders for young people in Ireland in 2019. From 2017 to 2019, Ireland consistently had a higher-than-average prevalence of mental health disorders across adolescents and young people aged 10 to 24. Yoga can help children lay strong foundations in self-care that allow them to take a proactive approach to their health and wellbeing as well as fostering agency and responsibility for their own health.

2. Children have less opportunity to play to these days. Play is vital for children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. However, children have less freedom and opportunity to play due to school demands and extra-curricular activities. American psychology researcher Peter Gray makes a strong case for the potential correlation between rising levels of anxiety, depression, a sense of helplessness and narcissism and declining opportunities for children to engage in self-directed play, particularly outdoor play.

Yoga brings back a sense of creativity and play into children’s lives. Not only are children developing coordination, flexibility and body awareness, yoga allows children to tap into the natural world through creativity and to assume the grace of a swan (swan pose), the grounded stature of a tree (tree pose), or the power of the lion (lion pose).

3. Yoga removes competition. Competitive sport is the touchstone for many and can be thrilling to participate in and to watch. At the same time, in competitive sport, the idea of winning is central, and significant adults in a child’s life such as parent(s), teachers and coaches can place emotional pressures on children to compete and to win.

Yoga promotes a more relaxed environment whereby everybody participates to whatever ability they can, which builds self-esteem, acceptance of self and others, and encourages a sense of fulfilment as children look inwards rather than outwards for validation.

Sample yoga practice to try with children

This is a sample yoga practice to try with children of any age. Check in to see if children have any injuries before beginning.

1. Centring: light a candle or incense. Sing the syllables A – O – E – M. These syllables create a vibration that encourages a sense of peace, presence, and connection.

2. Warm up the body: begin by warming up the spine. Gentle forward fold. Gentle stretches on the left and right side. Gentle twists from side to side. These can be completed sitting down, standing or a mixture of both.

3. Yoga poses: it is often useful to use a theme. The theme for this example is a safari. Use props and images/pictures as you wish.

  • Children are invited to travel to their destination by helicopter: arms out, feet do not move, and twist.
  • Invite children to make their way to the floor. From a sitting position, children kneel on all fours. Bring in some movement here if you wish such as cat-cow or free style movement.
  • Exploration of the animals we might see on the safari. (1) Zebra: children move from being on all fours to a downward dog position by lifting their hips in the air. Keep a slight bend in the knees. Lift one leg up to create a tail. Alternate legs. (2) Crocodile: plank position and into chaturanga – show teeth. (3) Rhino: kneeling position, lunge forward, create the Rhino’s horn using hands.

4. Conclusion: pretending to light a campfire, invite the children to:

  • Rub hands together – "Can you feel your hands warm up? Make a magic spark."
  • Using the breath, blow into your hands – "Make the spark bigger."
  • Forward bend and using the breath – "Blow the spark forward."
  • Using the breath, blow gently, long, and soft, so that the fire will get bigger.

5. Relaxation.

This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm