It's coming up to #childrensmentalhealthweek and this year's theme is #growingtogether. This is my take on the theme of growing together, because children's mental health is strongly influenced by the adults in their lives. This can be parents, carers, teachers... anyone who is a trusted caregiver or educator.
Firstly, I thought I'd summarise why yoga is so brilliant for your mental health.
We know that slowing down and regulating the breath makes us feel calmer. We know that reducing stress and tension in our bodies makes our minds feel less stressed and tense. We know that mindfulness practices such as lovingkindness meditations, gratitude meditations and positive affirmations boost our self esteem and improve our outlook on the world.
But in terms of growing together, it's important to know that we are HERD ANIMALS. This means that if we are feeling less stressed, then the people around us will feel calmer too.
I get very excited about this.
Being a herd animal is something I first picked up on during my baby massage training with Peter Walker, and I bring it into my family yoga and postnatal yoga sessions. A General Theory of Love by Lewis, Amini and Lannon has been really influential to me. I also drew on the idea of being herd animals and regulating each other's stress levels for my 'Bubble of Calm' relaxation in my book Goldfinches, Daffodils and Sunshine.
We are herd animals and we are in tune with each other. When one member of our herd is stressed or anxious, the signal gets sent around quickly so that we can run, fight or freeze as a herd. In the same way, if one member of our herd is relaxed, breathing slowly, has a slow heartbeat, then that feeling of calm and safety passes through us. It's one of the ways in which we've survived so successfully as a species.
As a small, young, vulnerable member of the herd, there will be some other herd members who you will respond to more strongly than others. These are the trusted adults in your life, your parents, teachers, extended family. When they are relaxed and calm, you'll feel the same. It's how you know there are no physical threats out there.
Although we pride ourselves on having brains that are more advanced than other animals, we still have that animal part of our brain that we can't always overrule, with any amount of reasoning or rational argument. So sometimes we will be stressed and feel threatened even though we know rationally that we are not in physical danger.
A powerful way to regulate those feelings is to pay attention to your breathing, following your breath all the way in and all the way out. And if you can do it for yourself, then the people who are in close proximity to you will unconsciously pick up on it too.
So when one of my children is distressed and I feel triggered, if I notice myself getting distressed in return, I regulate my breathing. I regulated my breathing when they were newborns, to encourage them to sleep. I do it now when they are upset. I regulate my breathing when a child I am teaching is upset or annoyed. I regulate my breathing during relaxation sessions so my class members, of any age, feel safe and calm.
If you can give yourself a minute or two a day, get into the habit of slowing your breath down to a comfortable rate. Notice if your breathing is shallow or deep into your belly. Try to breathe through your nose and keep your jaw relaxed. Notice how it makes you feel, especially if you feel flooded with calm. Then if it works for you, use it next time you have a child who is worked up. Don't tell them that you're breathing slowly. Just slow it down and see what happens. I really think it's a wonderful way of growing together with a child.
Illustration by Ben and Steph Grandis from Goldfinches, Daffodils and Sunshine, by Maria Oliver available in the site shop.