Lessons in Mindful Awareness for Kids

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Mindfulness expert Dan Siegel explains the practical science—and numerous benefits—of yoga for children, including building connections in the brain that support both self-awareness and empathy. 

By Dan Siegel

For thousands of years, wisdom traditions have taught us that paying attention to the present moment has powerful positive effects on our health. In this new millennium, sci­ence has found empirically validated support for these ancient claims that what we do with our minds and our bodies influences our well-being and our happiness.

There are many ways to learn to pay attention to our moment-by-moment experience with openness and kind regard. Mindfulness comes in many forms. For children, the time-tested prac­tices of yoga are a wonderful gateway into this world of mindful awareness.

With the digital distractions of modern times pulling our attention to visual and audi­tory stimuli of all sorts and all speeds, we’ve never before had such an urgent need for accessible methods to take “time-in” to focus the mind’s attention on the inner world.

This sea inside includes both the sensations in our bodies and the feelings and thoughts of our minds. When we focus inward and take time to cultivate our inner vision—what I call “mindsight”—we develop specific circuits in our brains that support our abilities to balance our emotions, focus our attention, pause before acting on impulses, and increase our compassion for others and ourselves. 

Participating in the stretches and positions of yoga is far more than just a body work­out. (But it does work the body, so if you have any concerns about your child’s medical limitations, please check with your health care provider first.)

When we help our kids learn the foundations of yoga, we are inviting them not only to position and move the body in certain ways but to focus attention on the sensations of the body. This does at least two things. One is that it makes it essential to focus inward and develop a strength­ened sense of attention. That’s a great thing just by itself.

But a second skill that we are helping kids develop is something called “interoception”—the perception of the interior of the body. The specific circuitry of interoception involves a central set of connections in the brain that support both self-awareness and empathy. The more interoceptive skills we develop, the better we know ourselves and understand and connect with others.

You may find that hard to believe—that focusing attention on the present moment’s sensations of the body in a mindfulness practice like yoga can actually change the circuits in the brain. But now, we not only know that this is true; we also know that being present for what is happening right now—focusing attention on life as it unfolds and not being distracted by multiple layers of external stimuli—actually supports our health in a number of ways.

Studies of various mindfulness trainings reveal that our immune function is bet­ter when we learn to be present; and mindfulness even elevates an enzyme that maintains the integrity of our chromosomes.

And, if I am really being present here, I have to say that we have gotten much more out of mindfulness than just those two benefits. Remarkably, being present like this has also been shown to help us concentrate, balance emotion, and be more resilient in the face of challenges. And it has also been shown to make us happier. No kidding.

So why not offer this to your children? If mine were young, I’d get down on the floor with them and start. The truth is, now my older, out-of-the-house adolescents take me to yoga classes up at their school. Live and learn!