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By Mary Beth Jacoby

All twenty-two children lay quietly with their eyes closed, their yoga mats arranged in a circle like the petals of a giant, multi-colored flower. Some are restless, distracted by the flickering candles in the center of the circle, but even the 3-year-old is participating.

The teacher gives instructions in a soothing voice, and the children imagine themselves going through a door that leads to the ocean. They listen for the sound of the waves, slow and rhythmic, like the sound of their breathing. After they have fully relaxed, the teacher tells them to come back through the door, and they start awakening by wiggling their toes. They sit up straight, place their hands over their hearts and bow to one another.

These young students at YogaWorks in Laguna Beach are not the only kids spending time in meditation. Meditation can take different forms, but is basically a state of mindful awareness or attention to the present moment. Though commonly associated with Eastern religious practices, meditation itself is not religious in nature and is used by people of all walks of life.

Parents, teachers and researchers are discovering how meditation can relax children and help them thrive in life and academics. Studies abound on the benefits of meditation for adults, and recent research is beginning to confirm that benefits extend to children as well.

Stress-Reduction and More

The relaxing ocean meditation is just one meditation that Sabine Sato uses in her yoga classes at YogaWorks. Yoga and meditation offer children a way to cope with their busy schedules of school, homework, sports and more.

“(Children) have very little time just to be,” says Sato. “The little meditation we do…really gives them time just to breathe and imagine.”

Psychotherapist Gina Biegel has studied the impact of meditation on teenagers and found that it does in fact decrease anxiety and depression. Her eight-week study of over 100 teenagers even found improvements in sleep patters and changes in medication use. “We tend to be going-going-going all the time,” says Beigel, who practices at Kaiser Santa Teresa Hospital in San Jose. “We need to take a moment and not feel the need to do-do-do all the time.”

The benefits of meditation go beyond stress-reduction. Meditation can help kids understand that feelings are okay, build confidence and establish closer relationships.

Nancy Brady has taught meditation to OC kids for the past five years. She was able to use meditation to enable 8-year-old Joey to handle his grief after his grandmother passed away. Brady helped Joey “visit” his grandmother, and he was able to tell her that he missed her and loved her. Afterwards, he was no longer sad.

“It enriches my life to watch a child establish strong inner connections that strengthen his or her abilities in school and will continue to grow through life,” says Brady. “I like knowing that children have a more complete set of tools—beyond anger and frustration—to live the best life they can.”

Bringing Meditation to the Classroom

Studies reveal that meditation may have numerous benefits for children in the classroom. In a 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology, mindful awareness exercises helped 1st through 3rd graders reduce anxiety and improve school performance.

Another study showed even more wide-reaching effects. Canadian students in 4th through 7th grade experienced improved optimism, attention, behavior and aggression through mindfulness exercises in the 2005 study by Kimberly Schonert-Reichl of the University of British Columbia.

“Meditation before bed helps a child sleep better, feel balanced during the day, develop his dominant learning pathways and strengthen the non-dominant ones,” says Brady. “In short, meditation can help children excel in academics and athletics.”

An exciting pilot study shows that mindfulness may benefit children as young as four and five. Last year the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA introduced a mindfulness program to preschoolers, the first controlled study on that age group. Mindfulness increased the preschoolers’ memory, planning and organization. Impacting a child’s development at such an early age has the potential for wide-reaching effects. While the results look promising, they are preliminary and further studies are needed to confirm these findings.

MARC is one of many organizations across the country seeking to bring meditation directly into classrooms. No formal programs have yet been brought to OC public schools, but there is interest in the possibilities, according to Dr. Lucy Vezzuto, coordinator of research and development for the OC Board of Education. Vezzuto is currently studying the research on mindfulness practices as a way to help students to be focused while feeling calm and safe. A ready state for learning, she says.

Yoga can create a similar calm and focus. At Anneliese’s Willowbrook School in Laguna Beach, Veronica Jacques leads her second graders in 20 minutes of yoga exercises each morning. She sees a marked improvement in classroom behavior, and parents often report that their children are focusing better at home, as well.

“It does help them improve their balance and ability to concentrate,” says Jacques. “It also promotes a deep sense of peace and serenity. They are not wild when they come in the classroom. They are really focused and ready to learn.”

DISCOVERING MEDITATION THROUGH YOGA

Children are discovering the benefits of meditation through yoga, and yoga studios are responding with classes designed for kids. One of these is mini yogis, a Los Angeles-based company that offers classes in OC.

Founder Shana Meyerson was pursuing a successful career and a graduate degree when yoga turned her life around.

“I discovered yoga and just realized that my whole life would have been so different had I found it as a child,” says Meyerson. She withdrew from school and quit her job to start the company, which specializes in kids’ yoga.

Yoga includes meditation and brings children similar benefits. Unlike school and sports, yoga is non-competitive. In learning to be non-competitive, children become less critical of themselves.

“Acceptance is a large part of yoga,” explains Meyerson. “Children learn that they are okay just the way they are.”

She has seen this significantly impact her students, including one shy 12-year-old tomboy who came into her first session hiding behind her mother’s skirt. With Meyerson’s help, she was able to embrace her differences from other girls and gain confidence. Within the first week she made a remarkable transformation.

Learning acceptance also teaches children to be less critical of others. A yoga class typically concludes with the children bowing to one another with their hands over their hearts in a gesture called “Namaste.” The bow signifies acknowledging the divine light in one another. “I think that’s a great thought,” says Debbie Lavdas Tomlinson of Aliso Viejo. Kindness towards others is just one of the things her children Zoe, 4, and Ty, 2, have gained from yoga.
“They get things out of yoga that they don’t get anywhere else,” she says. “I would love for them to keep yoga in their lives forever.”

Yoga provides additional benefits that meditation alone does not. Practicing yoga postures promotes physical strength, builds stamina and increases coordination and flexibility. “It’s very good for her athletically,” says Rachel Dawson of Laguna Beach, whose daughter Eliyah, 5, has been taking yoga classes for over a year. “She’s not into sports yet, so it’s a great way for her to have a ‘sport.’”

SPECIAL BENEFITS FOR SPECIAL NEEDS

Perhaps some of the most exciting possibilities are for children with special needs. Researchers at MARC completed another pilot study on the effects of mindfulness on teenagers and adults with attention deficit disorders (ADD). Though more research is needed, the participants experienced significant improvements in inattention and hyperactivity.

Brady used meditation to help one child with ADHD improve his attention span. During his first session, the 6-year-old boy rolled around on the floor because he was unable to sit still. Just a few sessions later, he joined the class for a few minutes, and at each subsequent session he was able to participate longer. He carried this ability over into his everyday life.
Brady also sees possibilities in meditation for helping children with autism. This spring, she is starting classes for parents of autistic children. She hopes to teach parents methods that may assist their children.

Meyerson has seen yoga help a child with a mild form of autism. The girl, who suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome, refused to even come into the class for a year. After a few years of teaching, she was meditating for up to half an hour.

“It really does make a difference in children’s lives, especially if they have special needs,” Meyerson says.

SHARING MEDITATION TOGETHER

When a parent and child experience meditation together, they can enjoy the benefits while also creating a special bond with one another.

Dawson and Tomlinson both started their children in yoga to enjoy time together.

“Mini yogis is a lot of fun to do together, too, as mom and child,” says Tomlinson. “I do the table pose, Zoe does the chair and pretends to eat, say, a spaghetti dinner on me.”

Moms-to-be can even use yoga and meditation to bond with their unborn babies.

“You are connecting with the soul of your baby in utero. It’s a feeling of connection, of oneness with your child inside of you,” says Mallika Chopra, author of two inspirational books for moms, and daughter of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra. For her, meditating during pregnancy was a beautiful and magical experience.

Whether children experience meditation with a parent or on their own, the benefits can last a lifetime.

“Meditation is a precious gift that your child(ren) will have for their entire lives,” says Chopra. “It’s something they will always have at moments of stress and frustration, and when they want to be at a (more balanced) place.”

TRY IT! THE FROZEN POPSICLE MEDITATION Have your child lie down in a comfortable position and lead her through this simple meditation: Imagine that you are a frozen popsicle. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t move your fingers or toes. Be as still as possible. Think about being cold, and see if you can make yourself feel cold. Tense all of your muscles as if you are really frozen. Now, defrost yourself little bit by little bit, becoming more and more floppy until you feel like a melted Popsicle puddle on the floor.FOR OLDER KIDS & ADULTSCount your breaths as you slowly inhale and exhale. Count repeatedly one to ten, and start over whenever you find yourself distracted. This will help you stay calm and focused. It’s also a great way to fall asleep!Source: Shana Meyerson, founder of mini yogis