01/02/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Yoga and Kids: Benefits Beyond the Mat

Making friends comes easily to some children. Others, not so much. These are the kids who came to mind when I watched Sara Vance's "Friendship Yoga for Kids." As a yoga teacher with a degree in school psychology, I'm always on the lookout for tools to help integrate children on the fringes.

Like adults, kids benefit from regular practices that promote health and emotional balance. Yoga can empower young people and also help them develop empathy and compassion. And yoga just feels great. It's no surprise that most children respond with enthusiasm.

Still, yoga for kids looks very different from even the beginner yoga varieties designed for adults. Yes, we want them to learn to breathe, stretch and strengthen their bodies and relax. But techniques for teaching adults often fail to engage children, who have much shorter attention spans. So the teacher's approach must be radically different.

Partner yoga for kids

Sara Vance teaches classes on yoga and healthy living for kids, several of which are available on "Friendship Yoga for Kids" helps children form deeper bonds with their peers through partner yoga. In this class, Vance emphasizes listening and communication as the foundational skills for partner yoga practice.

Incorporating animal poses and sounds makes yoga more fun for kids. Children love to moo like cows and meow like kitty cats. The noises keep the practice playful and help release tension.

Partner poses contain valuable lessons for children. Heart-openers encourage trust and sensitivity as children take turns supporting and leaning on one another. Balance poses show kids that together, they can create something beautiful and sustainable. They learn that it's okay to stumble and fall; you just get back up again. Your partner is there if you need a hand.

I learned some new tricks from Vance, including the "chair-evator," a moving chair pose in which children clasp hands and slowly lower into a squatting position. Vance even finds a way to integrate literacy. She brings children into butterfly pose, encouraging them to imagine their legs are the covers of a book. Then they discuss the characters and friendships from their favorite stories.

Throughout the class, this energetic instructor encourages kids to talk to one another to make sure the poses feel as good as possible. It's simple yet profound to watch children balance their own needs with those of others.

Why kids need yoga more than ever

In today's world, too many children are at risk of being disenfranchised. Internet and video games can substitute for meaningful real-life connections. Yoga brings kids into the present moment, their own vitality and the community. It's powerful and life-affirming.

For children who struggle with social skills, the communication, empathy and support highlighted in partner yoga can help establish the foundation for healthy relationships. I'm always amazed by the way young people dissolve into savasana, or final relaxation pose, at the end of class. Children crave this quiet time for contemplation and cultivating inner peace.

Stream "Friendship Yoga for Kids" or other classes from Sara Vance's GO Yoga series at home or in the classroom to help kids calm down, focus and grow more attuned to the world within and around them.

Amy Taylor is a freelance writer for She also teaches yoga to students of all ages. Find her columns on yoga and parenting here.

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