Last fall, a concerned mother brought her 7-year-old son to my aerial yoga & mindfulness classes in hopes he could "learn to be calmer" because he was getting into loads of trouble in school and at home. The mother was distraught and the boy was losing faith in his own ability to control himself and his intense feelings and movement needs. It was heartbreaking to see him so uncomfortable in his own skin because I knew about him what I know about all kids: they always do their very best given their resources, environment and abilities. No exceptions. When he first came to yoga class, I noticed he couldn't sing "Om" for more than a few seconds before needing to take another breath, and any time he got excited, frustrated, worried—you name the emotion, his breathing pattern was erratic and his breaths...
quickened and shortened, like tiny sips of air which were never completely released. When this happened, his muscles tightened and his decision making abilities narrowed. Then his behavioral disruptions and discomfort in his own skin ensued.
That boy’s breathing pattern is much like the majority of kids in modern day society, and if you have a child of your own, it’s likely she or he does the same when stressed, if not regularly.
Last school semester, I taught 35 amazing kids ages 3-10 aerial yoga and mindfulness once a week for 6-12 weeks. Out of 35 kids, 32 of them had to be taught to do slow, deep belly breathing that allowed good movement of the diaphragm! That’s 91% of my students that were regularly breathing in a constricted way without much knowledge around how to change it, and ALL of those kids came from supportive, middle class-upper class families that teach healthy habits. At the class start, only two of the 35 were able to identify deep breathing as a coping technique for big feelings or as a strategy for increasing focus, and both of those kids only knew that because they are mine and were well coached. I understand my sample size is small, but the significance is not.
Due to increased stressors and toxins in the environment, increased time spent in slouched, hunched posture as well as decreased societal allowance for movement and physical activities, overstimulation abounds and breathing patterns have become shallower and quicker in today’s kids. Even well intending teachers in schools unknowingly further poor breathing patterns by asking kids to "hold a bubble of air in their mouths" or close their mouths and blow up their cheeks in effort to lower chatter and noise volume (which, by the way, completely disrupts that natural rhythm of breath and can actually increase anxiety and disruptive behavior in kids).
Kids in modern society don’t intuitively know that deep and mindful breathing can help them have healthier, calmer, happier lives. They must learn it. They sip on small pockets of breath, hold their breath often (especially when trying to concentrate on academics) and posture in positions that constrict the movement of the diaphragm, which all turns on the body's stress response. What concerns me most is that modern society's fast-pace, technology-thick, movement-depleted lifestyle is increasing their need for deep breathing without also offering them the opportunity to learn it. Today's kids need to know how to breathe even more than any generation before!
For optimal brain and body health and development, deep, slow, relaxation-type breathing must be taught to and practiced by kids, and it’s up to you, me and the rest of the proverbial village to be aware of the power of the breath and the inborn ability to breathe deeply for better health and happiness so you can teach them, too. Let's do this, my friend!
We arrive already knowing how to breathe: Babies come into the world knowing how to breathe. Can't you remember watching a sleeping babe's sweet belly inflating up on the inhale and floating back down with every exhale? Now, right now--without moving an inch--notice your own breath. What body part is it that inflates and releases? It’s usually not just your belly like those sleeping babies breathing so intuitively. It's your rib cage that expands on the inhale and for some, the shoulders rise up, too. More likely than not, your belly is pretty still or moves only slightly. That’s a shallower, thoracic breathing pattern that increases neck and shoulder tension and directly affects your blood pressure, psychological well-being and even gene expression.
The shallow, ribcage/shoulder elevation movement is the same type of movement that would happen if you were being chased by a hungry lion or if you were having a panic attack (to a lesser extent, but still the same mechanics). Imagine what adopting a regular breathing pattern much like that which happens in fight or flight does to your nervous system over time. For starters, it can make you more susceptible to low back pain, create a negative domino effect on your immune system and stimulate a chronic state of low-grade anxiety. As they say here in Texas, that's no bueno.
How the modern day lifestyle inhibits our kids' natural relaxation response: Modern day positioning such as hunching over at our computers, driving, and craning our necks down to our phone screens has collapsed our posture, compressed our diaphragms and retrained our breathing patterns to be a shorter, shallower breath than that deep, easy belly breathing we once knew when we came into the world.
The same poor posturing pattern is happening at a much earlier age to our kiddos as they, too, spend increasing periods of time hunched over their desks in rote academic work with less time for recess and movement. Recent data suggests kiddos today experience as many as 7 hours per day watching media and 5-6 hours per day doing academic work at their desks. That’s about 13 hours a day their necks and spines are most likely slumped downward toward media or school work and their little diaphragms are folded and pressed taut, restricting their breath and thus hobbling their health and well being!
In addition, today's kiddos are spending less and less time outdoors doing full body movement and free play that naturally gets the diaphragm moving, stimulates deep breathing and gets kids in different positions: upside down, hanging, and involved in aerobic activities. That big body movement naturally frees up the muscular restrictions of the diaphragm and encourages deeper breathing that heals and promotes health and mood regulation.
Our kids need hours and hours of movement and play every day. A 20 minute recess and an hour of soccer practice per day will not do it. I know we do our best as parents and educators in this over scheduled world-I have many challenges around that myself-but we need to be mindful of the hours of sitting, car commuting, media watching and academic periods that require static activity and foster shallow breathing patterns. Such sedentary routine has a snowball effect on development and actually decreases decision making and mood stability. If your life is not conducive to offering your kids lots of movement, don't give up, my friend. I've got your back on this with tips to come! Just get your child moving as much as you can, and beyond that, teach deep breathing and know they will be well supported that way!
Deep breathing is a scientifically proven salve for health, happiness and focus! I know, I know, you've heard the recommendation to breathe before. "Just breathe" seems to be the cliche of modern times, but I'm going to tell you again: deep breathing is essential, absolutely essential for today's kids. Both old and new science will back me up on that as it has been proven to affect asthma, the immune system, executive functioning (decision making and problem solving) of the brain, blood pressure, gastrointestinal functioning and new research even suggests it may actually affect gene expression! Best of all? No side effects!
Many kids, both those that are considered to be typically developing as well as kids with diagnoses such as Autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety disorders or sensory processing challenges actually have more rapid, shallow, natural breathing patterns that generally move just the rib cage and not the belly. Short, shallow breath patterns or holding the breath can increase or maintain poor attention or disruptive behavior while deep breathing can actually do the opposite for their symptoms.
It's accessible to anyone, easy, can be done anywhere and it's right under your nose! As a mama in today's world, I seek practical, budget friendly, easy tools that my kids won't grow out of tomorrow, and I know you need the same. Deep breathing is just that! Deep, slow breathing that inflates the abdomen on the inhale and allows the belly to fall back toward the spine on a slow, long exhale can be both a preventative measure and a calming tool for a moment of struggle or inability to focus. And for the practical parents out there like me, it’s free, has lifelong application and is completely accessible anytime, anywhere.
It's taught in both Easter and Western practices: Deep breathing and it's benefits are not some new fad. It's been practiced for thousands of years, but we are just now seeing some of the most incredible scientific evidence around it. In yoga, we call this practice of deep, intentional breathing Pranayama, which means the exercise or control of the life force. In occupational therapy we call this practice “deep breathing techniques” or “diaphragmatic breathing.” It's all the same stuff with similar benefits if practiced with an intention toward health and stress-management. When I see a technique that's both been used by ancient practitioners of wisdom and is backed up by science, I wake up and smell that coffee, because that's the ticket.
Outcome in my classes: Remember that little 7 year old boy in my classes that had a short, shallow breath practically all the time? Once he learned how to use his breath, it became his go-to for test anxiety, frustration and the like. With a combination of breathing, mindfulness and more movement, his home and school life became successful and calmer.
As far as the update goes on the kiddos in my class last semester, all of them practiced deep breathing at every class meeting in a fun way, and by the end of our sessions, all 35 of them knew how powerful their breath could be, both figuratively and literally. We moved ping-pong balls, built bubble mountains, played breath volleyball, and lengthened the sound of our "Om" all with the breath.
Some of them told me with empowered wisdom how they took 5 deep breaths at school before a test or just before a piano performance. They relayed their stories of insight and success with shifted perspective of how to float through whatever life entails by sailing upon the waves of their breath. Others may not have reported to me that they used it outside of my yoga studio over the course of my classes, but they acknowledged the tool was there for them whenever they needed it and they understood how to use their breath and change it to change the way they feel and function.
Deep breathing offers a valuable life lesson and empowering message to our kids: Best of all, and even more powerful than the physiological benefits is the belief and trust in the self and the empowering message deep breathing instills in kids. The message offered by deep breathing taught as a stress-management or health tool is this: that kids have the power within them to rise up to their own best potential, to choose to change how they feel in an instant, to cultivate health from within instead of relying on someone else to do it for them. The breath embodies the lesson that each child is capable to expand and grow in life. Literally, with each breath in, our bodies expand and are nourished, thus we are reminded of how we intuitively know how to take in what we need for growth and progress. Furthermore, the proof that each child has the ability to let go of what she no longer needs to hold is in the exhale, as the breath out literally releases what served them before, but does no longer.
The power is within. It's inside each and every child. It's in the ebb and flow of something they do about 18 times per minute day in and day out from the moment they arrive to the time they depart. The secret to optimal brain and body health for kids is in the breath.
All they need to do is breathe. And you can show them how.
Much gratitude to you for taking time out of your day to connect with my mission here. Thank you for your precious moments spent reading my words. I hope this information will serve you well. Join me next week for a post on specific playful breathing techniques you can use immediately and easily to positively affect your child’s mind and body for the long haul!
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Lindsey Lieneck, MS, OTR, RYT, is owner of Yogapeutics in Austin, TX where she has developed the Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga & Mindfulness curriculum for kids. She teaches classes, consults with parents & schools and educates other professionals on the Yogapeutics curriculum. Read more about Lindsey HERE.
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