Michelle Fury, Yoga Therapist at Children’s Hospital, Colorado, reflects on the intention behind International Yoga Day and the impact of yoga on issues of global concern.
Yoga’s popularity has increased on a global scale. Recently the United Nations named June 21st International Yoga Day. The story was covered internationally by media outlets such as the New York Times. India, the birthplace of yoga, celebrated the day with yoga demonstrations like the one pictured above, featuring a throng of Indian school children practicing yoga.
As a pediatric yoga therapist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, I’m encouraged to see yoga’s popularity show some staying power on the global stage. Because of yoga’s focus on mind-body wellness, it is a promising intervention for many issues that ail our global society. This is true not just for adults, but kids as well. Here in the United States we are seeing epidemic levels of obesity (see “Fed Up,” a documentary on the food industry’s role in childhood obesity in the United States, 2014). And in much of the world, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are plaguing children and adolescents at record rates (Wamboldt, 2015).
Studies on the effectiveness of yoga for kids are still sparse. But my own experience in ten years using yoga to help treat children’s and adolescents’ mental health issues is that yoga offers a cost-effective alternative to drugs or other expensive treatments. The thing I love best about offering yoga to children who are struggling with either mental or physical health issues (or both) is that it empowers them to take charge of their own wellness. Even an 8-year-old can find a sense of power when he uses a breathing technique to calm his anxiety before taking a test or receiving an injection. Such a simple skill can teach a child a powerful lesson about his ability to have an effect on his internal experience. He learns this lesson for life, and this creates an adult who feels equipped to handle the stressors of life. In my book Using Yoga Therapy to Promote Mental Health in Children and Adolescents (Handspring, 2015), I offer theoretical evidence and practical tips on how yoga can empower children and adolescents to take charge of their mental and physical wellbeing.
Another important aspect of yoga that I don’t hear about in the media (or read about in studies on yoga’s benefits) is its effect on relationships. My first yoga teacher Richard Freeman (Ashtanga Yoga Master, who created the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO, USA) used to tell us, his yoga students, that yoga is about relationship. It starts with our relationship with ourselves, on our yoga mats. But if we’re truly practicing, it extends to our relationships with every single being we encounter in our lives. Yoga teaches us first how to be kind and compassionate with ourselves. As soon as we start offering ourselves compassion, we automatically extend that to others in our lives—our friends, family, strangers, and eventually even our perceived enemies.
When we look at the level of violence and terrorism in our world, it seems clear that we need to look for ways to relate to one another with compassion. One of my hopes is that as yoga continues to grow internationally—especially yoga programs for youth—it helps young people learn how to stay open to other points of view and to see others’ perspectives. Yes, this is a pretty idealistic goal. But I have seen how yoga can help cool the flames of anger, resentment and frustration among family members and within individuals. So why not dream big? Once learned, yoga techniques cost nothing and only increase in effectiveness the more one practices them. Let’s offer this powerful practice to our youth, and see what results it might yield.
Michelle Fury, Yoga Therapist at Children’s Hospital, Colorado, June 2015