Teaching children to practice diaphragmatic breathing can help enhance their mind and body. Among many, here are a few of the benefits: it oxygenates the muscles, enhances stamina and can increase metabolism. Breathing is linked to mood and studies have shown that full, relaxed breathing correlates to a relaxed, healthy state of mind. On the other hand, according to Peper’s studies, “Thoracic breathing can cause dyspnea, fatigue, irritation, headaches, increased muscle tension in the upper chest as well as increased feelings of anxiety and panic.”
Breath awareness is a powerful tool for a child to learn. Breathing activities done when upset, anxious, nervous, or any other state of mind that is not natural may ease a child’s mood. According to Kajander and Peper, “In a survey of children who participated in a biofeedback program for a variety of psychophysiologic disorders, 80% identified ‘that breathing stuff’ as the component of the training that they used most and retained longest.”
You and your child can practice breathing exercises outside of bringing them to class, which I highly recommend. Here are three activities I use in class that you can try at home:
The Balloon Game: Tell your child to imagine that you need their help to fill up balloons for a party. Their belly is the balloon, and they have to take a deep breath and push their belly out to fill up each balloon. Instruct them put their hands on their belly so they can feel the movement of their stomach in order to teach them what it feels like to breathe diaphragmatically (and so the balloon doesn’t fly away). Have them tell you the colors of the balloons as they are filling them up. This keeps their attention and they will continue until they run out of colors. You can do this any time to help them get into the habit of breathing fully.
The Seed Game: Another fun breathing activity is to have them take child’s pose (sitting on their feet, with belly over their thighs and head resting on the ground). Tell them to imagine that they are a seed under the dirt. To grow into a big tree they have to pop their seed open by taking a deep breath and pressing their belly against their legs. Tell them to try it a few times, and then from there they can grow into tree pose. This would be a great one to try if they aren’t behaving, are angry or in a similar state of mind, which is often a time when children need time alone, so you can tell them they are under the dirt where no one can bother them. By folding over and putting their head down it is immediately calming; adding the breathing practice will help change their mood.
The Counting Game: Counting is another great way to teach children breath awareness, and helps them with focus as well. Have your child count “one” as they inhale and “one” as they exhale, then move on to “two” and go up to five before starting back at “one.” If it’s a young child they can repeat “one.” Be sure to tell your child to focus on the natural rhythm of their breath, instead of holding it or manipulating it in any way.
Begin all breathing practices for a short period of time; repeating activities three times is a good starting point. Once they get more comfortable with a practice, or if you notice they want to continue, encourage continuing for a longer period of time. In order to teach children that breathing exercises are good for them, do not force them to do it; instead encourage them, and don’t get frustrated if they don’t cooperate. Keep trying and eventually you will find the right moment, or they will start to develop an interest. Tell them they can practice these on their own so it gives them confidence and encouragement that they can do it alone. Let them know the best times to practice: when they are angry, sad, anxious, upset, unhappy, or before bed, a game or homework, for example. Any time they would benefit from concentration or relaxation is also a good time to practice.
The most influential lesson that you teach your child is what they see you do. “It's important to teach only what you practice,” says Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania where I did my 200 hour yoga training. Take time for your own physical and mental health and when you’re having those moments of anger and frustration, you too will benefit from these practices!