The popularity of yoga is rising worldwide. Nowadays the mental and physical health benefits of yoga are being researched more and more and the evidence for its positive contribution to well-being is growing. It’s being practiced all around the world and is starting to be incorporated in many different settings as a supportive tool in healing/therapy.
Not only for adults, but also for children the practice of yoga has become a powerful tool to deal with stressors in daily life. Today’s children grow up in rapidly changing societies where violence, aggression and criminality are becoming more apparent through global developments and social media. On a micro level we see children being raised in dysfunctional families or unsafe environments becoming more common, leading to an increased population of traumatized and at-risk youth.
As such, more attention is being paid to the implementation of yoga and mindfulness practices in schools, detention centers, foster care families and orphanages to address the problems of at-risk kids. Yoga can help them regain control over their bodies, minds and lives. And they like it.
“Yoga is so much fun with the children from the orphanage Deenabandhu. Each day we stumble upon our own smiles during ‘yog-asana’ as they love to call it. The enthusiastic eagerness to show their self-created versions of the asanas causes sometimes so much hilarity that the whole yoga concept of focus and inward-drawn attention is totally swept away. Like a bunch of leaves swirling in the autumn wind the children are gamboling around, but they always fall back on the same place. The ground. The connection with the earth from where we work on strong legs, feet rooted in the floor, standing firmly as a tree that can conquer each storm of pain and sadness. Even though the tears can flow from time to time like a heavy rainfall often in this period, the smiles always return back on their snouts, looking at me with their sparkling eyes reflecting like mirrors and shine their light back to me. In vriksasana we find our balance again, together with the breath, which is sometimes also taken away by all this convulsive laughter.”
The Benefits of Yoga for At-Risk Children
Yoga can be seen as a practical therapy for abnormal emotional development, which can result in personality disorders in a later stage. Practicing yoga at an early age can contribute to balancing the stages of mental development of children since children’s brains are still flexible to growth. Receptive minds can be created and the quality of the consciousness can be transformed. The prefrontal cortex is still in development and if this can be influenced in a positive way the ability to concentrate and think, rather than act on impulse, is being stimulated. The earlier we start, the bigger the chance that children stay on track. The brain can be structured by practical methods that directly influence the subconscious mind of the child.
Also, through the practice of yoga at a young age the activity of the pineal gland is being preserved, which is correlated with mental control and monitoring. Usually through the years there’s a degeneration of the pineal gland, which implies the activation of pituitary glands that cause emotional unbalance and disturbance. Moreover, concentration skills and focus is being stimulated in performing asanas and learning how to breathe. The consistent practice of yoga is a powerful tool to keep at-risk kids on the right path.
Furthermore children learn how to deal with physical tension and emotional stress either through calming down the sympathetic nervous system or activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This stress release on the level of the autonomic nervous system supports the trauma healing of the child. The body becomes relaxed, the mind becomes still and he or she gets more in touch with a place of peace and calmness inside. Learning how to breath properly adds a lot to this as well. The increasing body awareness through the practice brings back self-control and self-efficacy and the ability to connect with emotions and the inner world.
Also, overall awareness is increased, and so is the ability to observe the inner world from a distance without judgement. On different levels self-acceptance is being fostered. Children learn to adopt an acceptance-based coping style and learn to approach themselves and the world around them coming from a place of compassion.
Some Guidelines for Practice
If we look closer to at-risk and often traumatized kids, we usually can distinguish two types of children that both need a different approach in their yoga practice. Depending on this we either need to activate the sympathetic nervous system or activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Yoga to activate sympathetic nervous system:
- This concerns the tamasic, indolent child. This child usually shows slack expression and attention and a signifying lack of interest and apathy. Dullness and daydreaming are common states of being of these children. The parasympathetic nervous system is overactive.
- In order to activate the sympathetic nervous system it needs stimulating and dynamic exercises that should take place at in the morning at the start of a school day.
- Beneficial yoga asanas and practices for these children are several rounds of dynamic Surya Namaskaras, standing postures, simple back bends, kabbalabati and uyajji pranayama and the singing of powerful mantra’s like the Trajambakam.
- Yoga to activate parasympathetic nervous system:
- This concerns the rajasic, hyperactive child. This child usually shows hyperactivity, fidgety and a short and uneven attention span. These children are very talkative and moving. The sympathetic nervous system is overactive.
- In order to activate the parasympathetic nervous system it needs relaxing exercises and to learn how to calm down in late afternoon activities at the end of the school day.
- Beneficial yoga asanas and practices for these children should be focused on soft and slow movements, and incorporate a lot of grounding postures and forward bends (e.g. Balasana, Paschimottanasana) which should be hold for longer period. Also deep belly breathing, sitali and bhramari pranayama and pranava japa are very helpful to relax.
Sraddha – A Safe Shelter Within
One more crucial aspect to follow the right path that goes for every at-risk child is being stimulated through the practice of yoga and can be considered as the starting point and foundation of the healing process. It’s the process of self-realization and the connection with the true self through the practice of yoga. It brings us all the way back to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It all starts with sraddha, the faith that you are moving in the right direction. The practice of yoga stimulates the development of a deep belief, an inner trust and awareness that these children often lack. It’s that feeling of safety within, where the body becomes a safe place to be, and one feels grounded, present and aware.
“Last week I had an interesting discussion on the concept of ‘sraddha’ with the teachers of Deenabandhu School during the workshops I gave on trauma healing and yoga. Although there’s no proper translation in English for this Sanskrit word, it comes down to a deep feeling of trust, confidence and faith, firmly rooted within. A constant awareness of the soul arising from love. It’s sraddha that ignites the inner fire, enlightens and helps to burn through all obstacles. An anchor. A shining light in the darkness, with a strong belief in light at the end of the tunnel.
In the darkest sky, sparkling stars shine at their best. Sraddha makes these stars reach us, even if they’re many light years away. Just looking up at the darkness and knowing it’s there is sometimes enough. A place that doesn’t naturally exist in everybody’s vocabulary. The children of orphanage Deenabandhu often aren’t born with this safe shelter. Home. Nobody to turn on the heating when it’s getting cold. To light the candles when it’s getting dark. They only have the light of the stars that guides them from their first steps on the earth. And it’s exactly this ray of light, this sraddha that is lifting them up and taking them to the place where they belong. To that safe shelter within.