Alarming Trends I've Noticed Teaching Yoga to Little Kids

I’m barefoot on the floor of an elementary school cafeteria, and the 60 tiny toes of my children’s yoga class point toward me on purple mats. “Take a big, deep breath as slowly as you can,” I say. I watch as six bellies inflate like balloons.

“Hold your breath in for a couple of seconds; now slowly let it out. Think for a second about something you’re really good at and just smile. You can sit up when you feel ready.”

I’ve just finished sharing a story I made up about a raccoon who discovers his previously unrealized talent for scouting out food. I’m about to lead the group in a closing namaste, when I notice that Aiden (her name has been changed here) has been crying. She sits up and says, “Thank you. I really needed that.” Her voice is quivering, and the amount of relief on her face is striking.

Aiden is only seven years old and she’s thanking me in tears for the five minutes allotted for relaxation at the end of our after-school yoga class. For last few months, I’ve spent my weekday afternoons teaching yoga to kids at five different public elementary schools in Portland, Oregon. Aiden’s reaction speaks to an alarming trend I’ve noticed: Kids are seriously stressed out, and it seems like testing and homework are a major culprit.

study last summer, published in The American Journal of Family Therapy, showed kids are getting three times too much homework assigned to them. This is largely due to the intense pressure teachers are under to get through stringent curriculums to meet standardized testing requirements. The Washington Post wrote about this issue citing a study last October showing how standardized tests are overwhelming our nation’s schools. The article explained that some parents are rallying against standardized tests, probably because they’re seeing the same things I’m seeing in their kids. Some people argue kids should opt out of standardized testing altogether.

During class, Aiden was a ball of anxiety. I could see it in her shaking hands and the way she would zone out as I talked the class through yoga poses via a story in which we pretended to be pirates. Later, in the middle of a game, she got in an argument with her sister about who was more tired.

“I had to take three tests today, okay?” she hissed.

“Well, I have to do three math assignments, and five reading assignments tonight!” Her sister, who is only five and in kindergarten, yelled this retort at the top of her lungs.

I did my best to dispel their debate with a little breathing exercise and a reminder that yoga is a time for inner work.

“In this class we don’t have to think about anyone else, or any tests or homework,” I said. “Remember, your mat is your own personal magic bubble, and no one but you gets to enter that safe space. This is a time in the day where you can just focus on you—not your friends, not your sister or brother, just your own mind and body.” I took the class into the downward dog pose.

“Where do you feel a stretch now, doggies? Your legs? Your arms?” This got us back on track, for now at least.

At the end of class I always tell a story, and it typically takes kids a while to relax, but once they do, they drop into the final resting pose, aka savasana. (We don’t use the Sanskrit terms, other than namaste, in my kids' classes, because some people are concerned it could connote religion. There’s an ongoing debate, spurred on largely by fundamentalist Christians, about bringing yoga into schools.)

While my students don’t usually express their relief verbally and in tears, many of them do arrive to class on the verge of tears, and I’ve found that high-stress behavior is the norm for these elementary schoolers, not the exception.

Kid yoga is nothing like grownup yoga. I don’t ask them to sit in meditation unless I’m telling a story or talking them through a creative visualization. We don’t work through sequences, and there isn’t a clearcut flow by any means. I make up my own curriculums as guidelines, but rarely do we stick to my class plans. Kid yoga is a boisterous endeavor, full of interruptions. Teaching it means staying fluid and being ready to shift gears or quench fires at any given moment. We move through poses via stories and games, and while I do have guidelines to prevent all-out chaos, it’s nothing near rigid.

From what the kids have told me, many days yoga class is the only time an adult asks them to let their guards down and just imagine. In some classes we color, and I’ll give them a loose guideline like, "draw a picture of something that makes you feel good about yourself.” As they tune into their imaginations I can almost visibly observe the layers of stress and structure melting off of their little bodies.

At the start of every class I ask my students to share a rose (something good from their day), a thorn (something not so good) and a bud (something they’re looking forward to). Typically just about everyone has a little trouble thinking of the rose, less trouble thinking of the thorn. As for the bud, they can usually think of something good on the horizon, but I’ve had students ask me what you call something you’re not looking forward to. We decided to call that one “dirt,” and there’s no shortage of it. Often, it consists of homework.

Every class, the flurry of students arrives visibly flustered, chattering to me about all the homework they have to do that night. A week before the summer break several first-grade-going-on-second-graders came to class angry and basically hyperventilating because their teacher had assigned rigorous daily homework assignments throughout the summer.

I don’t remember worrying that much about homework when I was in elementary school. It seems like too much when children are distracted from their creativity and imaginations because the big, bad homework monster is hanging over their heads.

I’d heard about this drift toward over-regulation in schools through articles I've read and parents I know, but teaching has made the repercussions of over-standardization real to me. At the beginning of the semester, I felt like the kids in my classes were waiting for some kind of punchline. This was fun and all, but when was I going to ask them to compete, or take a test? When was I going to snap, yell and send someone away from our circle for interrupting or acting out? It took some trust-building across the board for them to realize the answer was, never. But these kids’ entire school days consist of rigidity, and being the sponges that they are, that’s what they’ve come to expect.

From the beginning, I decided my yoga classes weren’t going to follow the kind of structure school classes follow. Yoga was going to be a time for them to explore and move inward and light up their less analytical right brains. We were going to laugh and let loose a little, because these kids desperately needed an adult in their lives to give them permission to be kids.

Since my yoga classes are an after-school program that parents pay for, most of the kids I teach are generally well-off, middle-class and relatively privileged (though the program does offer scholarships in special circumstances). And they are still stressed-out. I can only imagine the stress of inner-city kids who deal with hunger and poverty in addition to the overwhelming burden of school work.

Often my young students have more difficulty than my adult students letting go of their current realities and relaxing into visualization exercises (e.g., close your eyes, stretch out your arms and imagine you’re flying). That doesn’t feel right to me. Childhood should be all about expanding the imagination, not repressing it. Instead, our schools are asking kids to hunker down, get serious and focus, all day long.

One class told me that during lunch break, "they"—I assumed this meant teachers and cafeteria workers—made all of the students sit silently and eat. I asked, was that because some people were getting too rowdy or fighting? Every single kids answered in unison, “no.”

“They just do that sometimes,” one girl said.

“We weren’t doing anything, no one was,” said another student.

“Lunch is supposed to be our free time!” exclaimed another.

Yes, it is. Wonder what’s up with that. While I respect and understand the necessity of putting your foot down with kids sometimes (they will walk all over you if you don’t), I don’t really see why officials would make kids eat in silence during one of their few breaks from structure in the day.

This is just one in a plethora of kid anecdotes I’ve heard over the last few months. Couple this lack of free time with piles of homework, standardized tests and the fact that schools continue to cut back on arts and music programs, and the evidence is clear: We adults are creating a pretty stifling environment for our young ones.

Another thing I’ve noticed about the kids in my classes is that they have serious trouble focusing—that is, until you put a screen in front of them. I'm not sure there's a correlation between kids' apparent tech fixation and their stress and difficulty focusing in yoga class. However, studies have shown that too much screen time builds stress, fatigue and attention-deficit patterns in adults. According to neuroimaging research, excessive screen time damages the brain. Now, I'm sure most of the kids I've taught don't use computers or watch TV to the extent defined as "excess," but I have my suspicions that the time they are spending on computer tasks in school and playing digital games at home, isn't the healthiest thing for their developing minds.

These little kids are seriously obsessed with screens. No big shocker there. But it seems like many of them are getting too much of it. It also seems like one of the only times they are asked to let loose and play games is in the digital realm. Kids tell me all the time about the iPad and computer games they’re going to play later at home. They never mention the “analog” games they play with friends or parents away from screens.

This last semester has also taught me that elementary schoolers are learning HTML coding. I guess that’s what they’re doing instead of learning cursive? Maybe it’s a good thing, but it kind of blew my mind. And it means they’re spending hours of school time staring at screens as well.

The moment that made the kids’ screen obsession really come into focus for me was when I whipped out my phone to pull up some music for a round of Musical Mats (think musical chairs, but with yoga mats). As soon as the phone came out, it was chaos. Forgetting all of our guidelines about staying on our mats, the kids rushed me. Everybody wanted to see that screen. When one kid lost a round of the game and started to get emotional about it, I made the mistake of telling her she could press play on my phone for the next round. That became the new target of the game for the entire class. Other kids tried to lose so they might get a chance to touch that magical phone screen.

“It’s just a button on a screen, you guys,” I told them. “It’s not that cool.” This deterred no one.They would rather tap a button on a phone than play an actual, physical game.

I'm grateful I've had the chance to create a space where kids can let go of the structures imposed on them during their usual school days. It's pretty magical to watch the release of tension on their little brows as they sink into reclined butterfly pose, close their eyes and imagine they're floating on a cloud, or the joy in their eyes as they fling themselves up into wheel pose and forget about everything outside of their bodies. It's just too bad this kind of inward exploration seems so rare for most of them.


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