When we help kids deal with anxiety in yoga class, there are two main methods we can use: 1) releasing the tension of anxiety, and 2) redirecting their efforts and attention in a positive way. Below are some ideas on how to help kids explore their minds and bodily sensations while using yoga to deal with anxiety.
One of my favorite activities to do before meditation is Crazy Monkey. Tell the kids that they will talk about all their worries and fears for 20 or 30 seconds. Encourage them to talk as loud as they can to let go of the thoughts and in this way, no one else will understand what they are saying (some kids will relish the chance to speak loudly and freely while others will be more shy about it). Then you give the a signal–either with a bell, chime, or other sound–to chant the sound of OM together. This can be a fun way to shift the chaotic sound of thinking aloud to the calming sound of OM.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the idea called pratipaksha bhavana (Book 2, sutra 33) teaches us how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. This can be a powerful tool for calming the mind. But when using this method to help kids deal with worrisome thoughts, it is also essential to help them name their worries, just as they can do with the Crazy Monkey activity above. Worry Bubbles is a perfect pranayama (breathing) exercise for this: kids pretend they’re chewing bubble gum and blow a bubble (this emphasizes the exhale which is calming for the nervous system). Tell the kids to silently imagine blowing all the things that worry them into the bubble. Now that the worry is outside their body and mind, they can pretend to toss it away or out the window.
Depending on the personalities of the kids in the class, slow breathing can be calming, or more dynamic breathing can help release stress associated with anxiety. The Worry Bubbles breathing previously mentioned can be done with slow or more dynamic breathing. Another one I like is Vowel Breath: kneeling with arms raised up, breath in and on the exhale bring the hands down to ground and say ‘A.’ Repeat with each subsequent vowel. The idea is to come down into child’s pose each time with arms stretched forward, and to say each vowel loudly. Again, emphasizing the exhale is important for releasing anxiety.
For kids who express their anxiety through shyness, it might be best to do some kind of visualization, either seated, in child’s pose, or lying in savasana. Such activities are good for teaching kids to bring their attention downward through their bodies, which is a great way to dissipate the tension that shoots upward when we feel anxiety. Maureen Garth provides several creative guided meditations in her book Moonbeam: A Book of Meditations for Children.
Likewise, many poses are also good for bringing the energy downward. For example, tree pose, warrior pose, chair pose, and triangle are excellent for bringing kids’ attention down to their feet. Tell them to imagine roots growing down into the ground, or just to feel their feet and all ten toes spreading on the ground like starfish. Depending on the mood of the class, you can lead them through a slow or fast sun salutation, always emphasizing the breath and especially bringing focus to the feet and legs.
For a theme-based class you can talk about superheroes to help kids focus on how to take action when they feel paralyzed by anxiety. You might start by asking kids to notice how anxiety feels in their body: maybe like butterflies in the stomach, a tight chest, or a lump in the throat. Then they can make up a pose that helps them with that feeling and give it a superhero name; or you can make up some superhero poses of your own and spark their imaginations. The idea is that the kids can be their own superhero when they are frozen by worry or fear and that this ‘superhero’ part of themselves helps them to find a solution to their anxiety.
However you choose to help kids deal with anxiety through yoga, give them an opportunity to explore how they experience anxiety in the bodies, minds, and breath. Then guide them through ways to take action in changing their anxious feelings into positive ones, or taking action to dissipate it, even if it is just a simple visualization.