Yoga for the youngsters

Yoga classes for children are on the rise, and the positive mental benefits will be felt in the long-term.

Sasha Quince teaches yoga at Teddy Bear American Nursery in Abu Dhabi.
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When I was a child, PE lessons generally consisted of a heated game of rounders in the park, followed by a packet of plain crisps and a soggy cheese sandwich. Now, you're more likely to find the little ones in a yoga studio, slowly stretching into downward-facing dog and concluding their efforts with a gentle "namaste". How times have changed.

Yoga for kids is becoming more and more commonplace, as parents begin to realise that they're not the only ones who can benefit from the mind-soothing effects of regular practice. Even Gwyneth Paltrow's children are reportedly part of the young yogi brigade.

There is good reason for this. Studies show that children and teenagers reap psychological rewards from yoga; research led by Jessica Noggle of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, found that students in grades 11 and 12 who practised yoga experienced positive psychological effects, such as an improvement in negative emotions. The researchers noted that since mental health disorders commonly develop during the teenage years, yoga might serve a preventative role in adolescent mental health.

But you don't need to wait for teenage angst to set in before ferrying your child off to an emergency yoga retreat, as even the younger ones benefit. According to Sasha Quince, a yoga teacher and the founder of Let's Go Yoga in Abu Dhabi, these benefits include improved coordination, motor skills, self-control, concentration and discipline, and an increase in confidence and self-esteem.

The demand for kids' yoga seems to be increasing, too, as more and more classes are popping up in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"I believe the popularity is growing for the same reason that yoga for adults is so popular," says Quince, whose weekly classes accommodate children from as young as three. "During practice, we discover what is good for us and understand that yoga is not a competitive sport, rather, it is about the joy of movement and self-improvement. As an adult or child, once you experience a class you tend to feel really good when you leave."

The yoga teacher explains how the various poses and movements in a typical class for kids develop strength, posture and flexibility, while the breathing exercises not only teach children how to use their breath properly, but show them how the breath, body and mind are all connected.

"The games involved in a typical class help balance children's energy levels so that after the session, those who are extremely active will tend to be calm and children who are more quiet tend to become more alert," she explains. Yoga was the perfect choice for Nesli Simonutti's daughter, Alessia, who is five. Simonutti, who works in market intelligence in Abu Dhabi, started taking her daughter to yoga classes last October.

"I wanted her to try something different, make new friends and get a sense of a different culture. Yoga was perfect for Alessia since she doesn't like chaos or activities where there is too much running around. She enjoys the calm, organised and reflective nature of yoga," she says.

Simonutti believes yoga has helped her daughter come out of her shell and that it encourages children to think about their movements. "Kids can see how good it feels to put their body into shapes and stretch in different ways," she explains. "They can also relate to us a bit better when we tell them we want to sit down for five minutes and relax."

So the next time your little ones are destroying the house while on a sugar high, it's worth considering the yogic route of parenting. Ask them to lie down in "savasana" (on their backs, arms and legs spread at about 45 degrees) and to remain there as long as possible. Then put the kettle on and enjoy the silence for however long it lasts.