by Mary Elizabeth Dallas
March 29, 2011
Ever since Russian yoga instructor Lena Fokina posted a video of herself on the Internet in January 2011 swinging newborns around by their limbs, yoga for babies and young children has been called into question. YouTube has since removed the video, citing violations of its policies regarding inappropriate content. Still, Fokina insists her baby yoga practices are legitimate and extremely beneficial to a child’s physical and mental development. Scientific research on the subject is not as clear.
Yoga—a system of physical and mental exercise—emerged as a popular trend in recent years, but the practice dates back more than 5,000 years according to the American Yoga Association (AYA). Since then it has evolved into many styles and is enjoyed by a large and growing number of people around the world. In the United States (U.S.) alone, 1 in 10 adults practices yoga. The rising popularity of Yoga transformed this ancient practice into a thriving business. In the U.S. it is a $6 billion industry, reports the Yoga Business Academy. The group also notes the percentage of beginners taking up yoga increases about 20–25 percent each year.
These revealing statistics may reflect the desire to capitalize on the health and wellness benefits that yoga may offer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health cite weight loss and stress relief among the advantages of yoga. A 2006 study found that yoga participation among adults is beneficial to obesity prevention, hypertension control, and positive quality of life. Many physicians now recommend yoga to patients at risk for heart disease, as well as those with back pain, arthritis, depression, and other chronic conditions.
Whether the benefits of yoga hold true for children is unclear. Research suggests yoga can boost a child’s self-esteem and enhance performance in school. But for children under the age of 6 years, if it is not practiced safely and in moderation, it can be dangerous.
As of 2007, there were over 1.5 million children practicing yoga in the US. But before you sign up your children for yoga class, take a look at both the benefits and the risks, so you can make an informed decision as to whether yoga is right for your child.
Benefits for children
In a published youth campaign, the CDC states, “Yoga can help kids develop better body awareness, self-control, flexibility, and coordination. Many teachers and parents have seen children carry these skills beyond class and into their daily routines. Learning yoga moves can also help improve your child’s snowboarding technique!”
In fact, a 2003 California State University study found a link between yoga and improved learning, better behavior, and greater confidence in school-age children. The study examined children ages 5 and up and the correlation between yoga and academic performance, discipline, attendance, and self-esteem. The research showed a 20 percent increase in the number of students who felt good about themselves, and a 6 percent increase in classroom discipline scores among those who practiced yoga. Students who had high participation in yoga class also had fewer discipline problems. The study also showed a “statistically significant” link between yoga participation and better grades.
The Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation finds that yoga is an appropriate, non-competitive, and gentle exercise for children. “Children of all ages and physical abilities can practice yoga. Children can learn to stretch, breathe deeply, relax, and concentrate. Yoga builds stamina, stability, and balance. It helps to improve digestion, elimination of toxins, and keeps children healthy and happy,” the group states.
With countless organizations touting the health benefits of yoga, a yoga craze has taken place. And it’s not limited to school-aged children. An increasing number of parents are choosing to enroll infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in yoga classes.
Baby yoga organizations argue there are a slew of health and developmental benefits associated with the safe and proper practice of yoga among even very young children, including:
But is the practice really safe?
Risks for children
Some yoga industry experts have come forward, expressing concern about the practice of yoga among children. The AYA expressly states that yoga exercises are not recommended for children under 16 because their bodies’ nervous and glandular systems are still growing, and the effect of these exercises on these systems may interfere with growth.
The group contends that yoga, like acupressure, neuromuscular massage, and reflexology, can have systemic effects due to pressure applied to certain areas of the body. Many yoga stretches also target the nerves in the legs, arms, neck, and spine. As a result, the AYA concludes there are plenty of other activities and exercises more suitable for kids. Although yoga can be beneficial, it can also be harmful for children (particularly babies) if performed incorrectly.
So what are the major risks and other drawbacks associated with babies, toddlers, or preschoolers practicing yoga? The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as well as the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology provide some of the following insights:
Although the AAP suggests that yoga could promote better sleep and combat obesity in children, the organization does not currently have an official position on yoga.
Tips for practicing safe yoga at any age
What can parents do to protect their children from injury if they are interested in getting their babies or toddlers involved in a yoga class? Be sure the class focuses on gentle stretching and is practiced in moderation. And follow these tips:
Mary Elizabeth Dallas is a NY–based journalist with more than 15 years of experience, including CNN and ABC News. She is also relishing her newest challenge… motherhood. Today, she is using her experience to help inform parents on the key challenges and issues they face every day.
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