(And why kids of all ages need it)
Everyone knows yoga can make a body more flexible. In fact, inflexibility is often the top excuse people give for not being able to take yoga, stating, “I can’t do yoga. I can’t even touch my toes.” It is also the subject of a common joke among yoga instructors when making plans or appointments we will say, “I’m flexible.” All jokes aside, flexibility is important, and I will tell you a little more about why in this post and in upcoming posts since there’s so much awesome information. Yes, I am affectionately (or not so affectionately, haha) called the “yoga dork” around my teaching circles.
Let’s start by looking at what flexibility really is. Flexibility can be explained as the ability to move a joint effectively through its entire range of motion, which is dictated by the ability of muscles and tissues around the joint to be stretched. Range of motion is determined by multiple factors, one being the nervous system’s ability to send the correct signals to the correct muscles. Other factors affecting flexibility can include: genetics, joint structure and surrounding connective tissues, muscle strength, sex, age, activity level, previous injuries or medical conditions, and repetitive movement. Science or not, to me, flexibility has always been about creating space in the body. Once the space is created, change can occur.
You see, even children develop body habits, ways of moving that throw their whole neuromuscular system off balance. When we form these holding patterns, if you will, the muscles designed to move a joint (prime movers) sometimes get underused while the “helper” or smaller muscles (synergists) take over and become overused. This affects the path the signals take, leading to what personal trainers refer to as relative flexibility. This can affect structural integrity and lead to injury and poor joint function, low-tone issues, and altered muscle lengths (muscle imbalances). These imbalances can be caused by posture, emotional stressors, movement patterns, trauma, weakness in the core, and also poor communication between the brain and the muscles.
Did you know all of that? I didn’t know the details until I recently began studying for my Personal Trainer Certification. I then became fascinated and started looking at my yoga students differently. I have always been an alignment nut with a focus on the subtleties of inner alignment in my adult classes; but after studying this topic it got me thinking about it in terms of children in my classes, too. Sure, we play games, dance, breathe, do yoga postures, tell stories, and so much more, but I began thinking of these activities in a different light. How can I structure a class (especially if I know the kids) or work with my own children in a way that will help ensure they are maintaining stability or structural integrity while developing good movement habits, strengthening weakened muscles and lengthening overused ones, improving muscular reactivity through speed/agility/quickness activities, and prevent injury in other activities. That’s a tall order! Luckily I have the tools from my training both with adults and children to create a program like this.
It is easy to do by doing even the shortest but balanced practice with them. Be sure to include all the movements of the spine: side bends, forward bend, backward bend, and twists. Incorporate balance postures, mindfulness activities, and quick movement through either dancing, games like Red Light, Green Light, Tree, foot drills (use cones or straps to create obstacles to move around), and many other activities. For example, a story that includes “mountain climbing” could incorporate the exercise called Mountain Climbers in short spurts with short periods of rest. This builds strength and endurance, gets them giggling, and challenges them cardiovascularly.
Be creative with children, not many will sit still for a weekly restorative yoga class or even a detailed postural alignment explanation. They don’t really need to know the nitty-gritty of why something is good for them—they will feel it and that’s what matters most. As a parent or a practitioner, our job is to share what we love with the children we love. We as adults love yoga because it “makes us feel good” on many levels. We have the opportunity to help children create good habits now, maintain healthy neuromuscular function, and develop strength, stability, and flexibility as they grow up rather than after they are done growing. Kids Yoga isn’t about turning our children into pretzels or the next Instagram wonder child, but rather keeping (or restoring) openness in the body and the mind so they can be at peace in both body and mind. In my next post we will learn more about the sense organs within the muscles as well as the scientific case for flexibility training.