In a children’s yoga class we often open with a breathing exercise to centre, calm and bring attention to the present. Little ones often enjoy doing these exercises and can also do them anytime outside of yoga class! Breathing exercises or Pranayama is the practice of consciously regulating the breath. It is one of yoga’s most powerful and effective tools for managing stress, anxiety and fear. Teaching children breath awareness and breath control encourages relaxation and safely regulates their emotions.
Breathing deeply naturally brings fresh oxygen into our bodies. Depending on how the exercises are done we can calm or energize both body and mind. In normal breathing patterns we rarely use the full capacity of our lungs and when stress/anxiety pop up we even restrict incoming air. Moreover, practicing breathing allows us to fill our lungs with fresh air and turn off the nervous system’s fight or flight sympathetic responses and activate the parasympathetic calming body responses. Breathing techniques also allow us to get out of our railing heads and into our bodies, they are wonderful portable mood elevators. I also use these myself anytime I need to settle, focus, re-energize or let out a little steam! Try faucet breathing or double breathing in the car next time you’re sitting at a red light and running late!
Done with students in school environments in the morning before class, Pranyama will oxygenate the brain and prepare it for action, a few deep breaths before a hard test will clear and ease the mind and help it to perform optimally.
Here are 8 of my favorite breathing exercises, some use visual cues, imagination, sound and even crafts to engage children.
All techniques can be done seated or standing unless specified.
Breathing ball: the breathing ball is a colorful sphere used by many teachers now and is a great visual tool to help pace breath rhythm. Begin by explaining belly breathing and the importance of filling your lungs and then letting the air out slowly. When the ball expands inhale using your nose and when the ball collapses exhale out your nose and imagine your lungs empty as the ball is getting smaller. Repeat 3-5 times.Toddlers really get a kick out of breathing out into the ball. For the youngest of yogis I like to place a feather close to their face (before using the ball) and ask if they can make it move with their breath before using the breathing ball just so they become aware that there is air coming out of their nose!
Shop breathing ball: http://www.yogifrogzkids.com/eng/store/
Balloon breathing: This exercise requires a little imagination and having a balloon handy for a few extra giggles. Explain that the balloon represents their lungs. To begin have the children interlace their fingers over their heads. As you blow air in and the balloon grows bigger ask children to fill their bellies, ribs chest and arms even! (So the arms and hands lift overhead like a great big balloon). When you let the air come out of the balloon ask the children to purse their lips and slowly let the air out. It should make a funny noise! Repeat 3-5 times.
Faucet breathing: I’ve used faucet breathing when children felt agitated and even seemed a little angry. Ask the group to bring their arms out like a T and make fist with their hands. Shoulders, arms and hand muscles very tight (you can also make a scrunchy face). Ask the children to fill their lungs breathing in the nose and then exhale out the mouth making a ssshhhhh sound and letting all the tension out of their bodies and muscles. Repeat 3-5 times and follow with a few slow calming breaths in and out the nose.
Steam train breathing (resembles Kapalabhati breathing): Great exercise for preschoolers and will definitely elevate energy and mood. Start in a seated position (rock pose or easy pose) and place your hands on your thighs. Ask children to breathe in the nose and have the air come out of their noses making sniffing sounds like a steam train they might hear from a distance. Then gradually speed up the breath and say, “Imagine the train is speeding up and going faster!” Allow the children to get the breath up to a fairly rapid pace and then begin to slow again – “The train is approaching another station.” Depending on how fast the train went have them repeat 2-3 times (each set should include 15 breaths)
Bumble bee breath (similar to Bhramari in Pranayama practice): Have the children sit down comfortably and place their hands on their knees. (Arms can also be used to imitate bee wings: great to stimulate the glands under the armpit!) Ask the children to bring the breath in through their nose, then out their mouth making a buzzing sound. Make the exercise last longer and add vibrating lips on the 3rd breath and humming sound on the 5th breath. When you get to the humming sound you can also ask the group to put thumbs in ears and fingers to cover eyes. The lovely comforting resonance of this has a calming effect and done with eyes closed can make it even more peaceful. Show a picture of a bee to engage them visually.
For Easter - Bunny Breathing: Is always a favorite. Ask the children how do bunnies breathe and have them demonstrate – then have the children take three quick sniffs through the nose like a bunny (extra hold your hands like a bunny would) and then one extended exhale out of the nose. Ask them to pretend they’re sniffing carrots! This is a breathing activity can be very cleansing. Use it also when children are a little upset or are having trouble finding their breath. In adult classes the double breath: two in the nose two out the nose and mouth is often practiced.
5 Count Breathing Star: Have your class make their own star or bring them ready. Here is a fun pdf document to print out and use to do this exercise:
Have the children use the star when they do the breathing exercise. Ask them to run their index finger along the dotted line or star edges as they breathe in and breathe out. Inhale in your nose trace one line, exhale out your mouth trace the next line. A wonderful way of also using tactile and visual senses.
For Older Children Darth Vader Breath: Similar to Ujjayi Pranayama this is a bit more complex to teach, so save this for the older children. Have the children imagine they are fogging up a mirror. Ask them to place their hands in front of their mouth making a Darth Vader mask then prompt inhale in the nose, exhale making a ‘ha’ sound with the out breath.They then keep this going with their lips closed.
This breathing technique not only encourages mindful breathing and an awareness of the breath; it also tones and stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Any child or teen suffering with anxiety or (more extreme) depression will thank you for this invaluable tool. Start with five breaths long and slow constricting the back of the throat on the inhale and on the exhale and practice longer as your group relaxes into the exercise.
Many more breathing exercises can be done lying down, with a partner, listening to chimes, practicing mantras, using others props like straws and paint and all to engage and make breathing a little less abstract and fun to practice! When I first committed to writing this article I only had a few of these in my teacher kit and now have many more! So I plan to include them in my upcoming classes and create a reference document and eventually share with all of you! It’s the beginning of a new project:) I truly believe that breathing exercises are the secret sauce to yoga classes and mindful living. These techniques are the first steps in introducing meditation to children.
Here is also a wonderful article by Young Yoga Masters all about the breath and bubbles!
THANK YOU FOR READING!
References and other resources: