Children returning back to school after lockdown - how can yoga help them?
Children are returning back to school after being in a national lockdown for months and months. Many children have experienced limited opportunities to socialise and play outside. This can have an exceedingly detrimental effect on their mental health and emotional wellbeing. Missing their friends, school and normal home life can trigger feelings of boredom, frustration, loneliness, depression, emotional instability, mood swings and anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that is experienced as a combination of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings. For young children this can manifest as tummy ache or being tearful. It can also affect the digestive system and sleep. Anxiety is a normal part of growing up such as first day back or starting a new school, pre-test or exam nerves. The problems start when a child becomes stuck in these uncomfortable feelings and is unable to process how they feel. They can then feel overwhelmed, frightened and distressed.
I have spoken to teachers in a local primary school who have said that they have noticed that many children are more anxious than ever before and that this is due to their experiences of missing months and months of schooling. Many children have had worries about being so far behind in their schooling and that gives them strong feelings of being inadequate and unable to cope with their return to school. The children are worried about having to reconnect with their peers, their teachers and school life in general. This is all on top of fears of catching Covid 19 and/or someone they know may catch it and become seriously ill or at worst they may have had a family bereavement.
When the body encounters a stressful situation the hormones adrenalin and cortisol are released into the body, These are the hormones that stimulate the nervous system into flight or fight mode. This is the sympathetic nervous system going into hyperdrive. A prolonged period of stress can have a bad effect on the body, affecting the immune system. In particular it can affect the lymphatic system, the white blood cells in the blood that fight infection. The physical movement of the large muscle groups in a yoga practice helps to flush out the stress hormones from the body. By moving the body and unclenching tight muscles and deepening the breath we can counteract the effects of stress and create an inner sense of release and ease.
To counteract the overly active nervous system we have to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest mode. We can activate the rest and digest mode through focusing on the breath. When we become anxious we tend to start to breathe poorly, the breath becomes shallow and rapid. This can induce feelings of panic and fear. So it is very important to breathe in slowly and exhale with a long full exhalation. When we extend the out breath we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
So how can yoga help children in a school setting?
Yoga, meditation and mindfulness can be included as part of the pastoral care provided in schools, to take care of children’s emotional wellbeing. Because yoga is a non-competitive activity it doesn’t add to the already daily pressures that other physical sports might do. The children are taught that everyone is unique and that we are all physically different so that when we are doing a posture such as the triangle we all may look different to each other because some people have longer arms and legs so therefore we will all make a body shape that is special to ourselves. Yoga for children promotes self-confidence and self-awareness through praise and encouragement as they learn to move into and hold a yoga pose.
Through relaxation and mindfulness children have the opportunity to relax and be calm mentally and physically.
Through group activities, games and exercises yoga provides children opportunities to play cooperatively together promoting social skills and interaction.
Children learn to take turns in yoga games and respect other children’s space by working and practicing their yoga in their space on their yoga mat. Basic mindfulness and meditation practices promote inner peace and tranquility. These practices are then instilled as tools for life.
I believe that teaching meditation to children and teenagers is more important than ever before because children are under more stress and pressure to achieve, that they are forever in a state of being stressed or anxious about whatever it is that they have to achieve, attain or perform. Add on top of this the additional stress they have been going through because of the global pandemic.
Teaching meditation to children has huge benefits for them in many ways. It gives them tools for life including learning to relax and unwind from stressful situations; ‘self calming’ helps them to look inward and teaches them ‘self- reflection’; they can learn to take time and just be still, physically and mentally; it also teaches children to open up and cultivate patience and compassion towards others as well as themselves. Teaching meditation skills also enables children to be less impulsive and less reactive in emotional situations which enables them to make better decisions in life. The practice of meditation and mindfulness helps children to regulate their moods and enables them to become more empathetic people in the future.
We need now more than ever before to support children and young people at this time as we are coming out of this Covid 19 pandemic. Not only to help them at this moment but to help them to grow into well adjusted adults of the future.