Did you know we take some 23,000 breaths each day? Have you ever noticed that you hold your breath at times, or that your breath sometimes speeds up—perhaps when you are anxious? We can learn to calm ourselves down or rev ourselves up with breathing, and it is a perfect place to begin mindfulness practice with children. Our breath is always available, and we can practice breathing anyplace, anytime, without anybody even knowing we are doing it. In fact, our breath very well might be our self-regulation superpower!
If it seems odd to think about practicing breathing, begin by taking breath checks throughout the day. For example, notice your breath when you are driving in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, or pausing to catch a glimpse of the sun.
Many of us have admonished our upset children to “take a deep breath,” but how many of us have actually taught them how? When teaching children to focus on their breath, they often exaggerate, which can lead to lightheadedness. If this happens, take a break and then suggest trying again with a more gentle breath. Practice often but keep it short; they will get the hang of it.
Practicing Mindfulness with Breathing Exercises
Basic Practice 1: Seated
Since our spine serves as Mission Control for breathing, it is important to sit well. Take the time to guide your child into his mindful body. If he is sitting in a chair, his feet gently snuggle into the earth like tree roots, his seat rests on the chair, and his spine rises tall, ideally not leaning against the back of the chair. If your child is seated on the floor, perhaps in “criss-cross yoga sauce,” his hips sink into the earth and his spine lengthens up.
In yoga, we practice balancing ease and effort. Children love the cooked spaghetti metaphor to understand this principle. Ask your child to make her body like raw spaghetti—hard and brittle. Now, ask her to become overcooked spaghetti—soft and floppy. A good seated position is like pasta al dente: neither too hard nor too soft.
Have your child place one hand on his belly and one hand on his chest, then take a deep breath in through the nose. Let it be audible if possible. For very young children, they might pretend to “smell the soup.” Encourage your child to stretch the spine tall as he inhales. Exhale with a long, audible “Ahhhh…..,” or pretend to “cool the soup.” Have your child repeat several times, then pause to notice any changes in his mind or body. What feels different?
Basic Practice 2: Lying Down
Have your child lie on her back, arms by her sides, palms facing up. Place a soft toy, like a stuffed animal, on her stomach and ask her to pretend to breathe the toy to sleep. Encourage her to watch it rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale, and to try making the breath nice and smooth so as not to startle the stuffed animal. Older children might enjoy the feeling of a sandbag or other weighted object on the belly.
Like computers, at times our “operating systems” can benefit from a reboot.
Basic Practice 3: Counting the Breath
Like computers, at times our “operating systems” can benefit from a reboot. How many breaths does it take to reset your nervous system? Begin with five breaths in and out.
Inhale for one count; exhale for one count. (For very young children, start with “breathe in, breathe out” until they grasp the meaning of inhale and exhale.)
Inhale for two counts; exhale for two counts.
Inhale for three counts; exhale for three counts.
Inhale for four counts; exhale for four counts.
Inhale for five counts; exhale for five counts.
Ask your child to notice any changes after the exercise.
Breathing Exercise Variations
A YogaKids classic, this exercise has your child lift one finger with each full breath, until all five fingers are extended. Then, if desired, count backward while lowering one finger at a time with each breath.
Kinesthetic learners can use their hands for a more tactile version of Take 5. Have your child trace one hand with the opposite index finger. Ask him to begin at the base of the thumb, inhaling as he traces up the thumb, then exhaling down the opposite side of the thumb. Continue breathing up and down each finger. When he finishes on the pinkie finger, he will have taken the “magic five” full breaths.
Another kinesthetic variation is to count objects. Marbles, balls, pebbles, candy—there’s no limit! Pick up one on the inhale; place it down in a new pile on the exhale.
This is generally a more energizing breath that can be useful before beginning chores or homework. Ask your child to sit in a comfortable position, on her heels or in “criss-cross yoga sauce.” Take four to six quick sips of air through the nose, twitching like a bunny rabbit. Instruct her to breathe out through the mouth with a long “Ahhhh….” Repeat several times until she feels energized.
Breathing Out Loud
In yoga, it’s a tradition to chant the sound “ohm” on the exhale. Doing so naturally lengthens the exhale, which calms and soothes the nervous system. Children love playing with one-syllable sounds to exaggerate the exhale. Try having your child stick out his or her tongue and say “Ahhh,” like at the doctor’s, or exhale the first syllable of his or her name or the word “love.” Try meowing like a cat, or mooing like a cow. Go through each vowel sound together, one at a time, and remember to have fun!
For additional ways to practice mindfulness with your child, try back-to-back breathing. You can also explore mindfulness books for children available from Magination Press.
Related Books from Magination Press
Breathe is a conversation between a boy and his mother at bedtime. But this conversation can happen at any time, in any place. This introduction to mindfulness presents a collection of illustrated exercises to help little ones become aware of their breath and their body. Includes a Note to Parents & Caregivers that describes the exercises and their effects in more detail.