The next time your toddler has a major meltdown, try dropping into downward dog with them, or ring up a meditation app for a dose of positivity. You may be surprised at how quickly they wind down. An increasing amount of evidence highlights the benefits of yoga and meditation for toddlers, with studies showing that practicing both can lead to everything from reduced anxiety to better emotional regulation and increased attention spans for kids as young as 3. “Reports from parents, caretakers, and teachers suggest that children who learn yoga early on are physically healthier and mentally better adjusted,” preeminent yoga scholar Shirley Telles wrote in a 2012 article titled, “Effect of Yoga on Mental Health in Children.”
Everyone from entrepreneurs to educators have caught on, with kids’ yoga studios springing up nationwide and more preschools weaving yoga and meditation into the curriculum. App developers are jumping onboard, too, rolling out interactive meditation apps geared toward kids, such as Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame developed by Sesame Street. “Yoga gives young kids the tools to recognize an emotion as it’s rising,” says Jill Carey of Chicago’s Mission Propelle, which runs yoga programs in partnership with nearly 90 elementary schools across Illinois. “They can evaluate it, process it, and have a positive response to it.”
How exactly do yoga and meditation work to calm the brain? Studies have shown how doing certain poses or deep breathing can help to “down regulate” or slow our sympathetic nervous system, which triggers a fight-or-flight response to stressful stimuli. “A big part of yoga is helping kids articulate their emotions,” says Erin Bracco, cofounder of Buddha Belly Kids Yoga in Chicago, which holds classes for kids as young as 18 months. She uses games—like having children balance a Beanie Baby on their head or stomach—to help them zero in on exactly how individual body parts feel. “Kids will say things like, ‘I feel sad, and I feel it in my stomach.’ ”
Exercises don’t have to be tricky to be effective: Even basic moves like child’s pose can help keep children grounded. Likewise, simply instructing kids to take deep breaths when they’re riled up can have a calming effect. “Instead of expecting kids to sit down after recess, we would start with mindfulness and meditation,” recalls Bracco, a former special-education kindergarten teacher. “It really shifted the classroom culture.”
“With yoga, you don’t need a particular skill set or equipment, and you can engage in it anywhere at any time,” Carey adds. “That means anyone can reap the benefits.”
Studies show yoga is especially helpful for children with ADHD and autism.
Research published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2012 found that elementary-aged kids with autism showed declines in noncompliant behavior after practicing yoga five days a week for 16 weeks.
Along with schools, hospitals are incorporating yoga into therapy for special needs patients. Children’s Hospital Colorado, for one, uses it with kids as young as 4.
Yoga may be especially effective for special-needs children because they tend to respond well to modeled behaviors. When an adult displays calmness—say, by taking deep breaths—children typically mirror those emotions. Erin Bracco, who works with special-needs kids at her Chicago- based studio Buddha Belly Kids, says, “The more grounded adults can be, the energy shifts that way.”