Ana Hansen is a kids’ yoga pioneer and a councilor on the Yoga Unify Governing Council for Education and Qualification. She’s been teaching mindfulness to children since the early 2000s, and believes that the tools and teachings in yogic philosophy can be empowering in a child’s education. Ana sees her work with Yoga Unify as a way to take kids’ yoga to the next level. Join Ana in her mission by joining Yoga Unify as a Founding Circle Member! Click here to learn more.
By Lisette Cheresson
It’s no secret that the pandemic is taking a massive toll on the mental health of our children. In late January, the city of Las Vegas announced that it would be reopening schools for in-person learning, after a bout of childrens’ suicides surged through the city. The National Institutes of Health have issued a slew of studies about the impact of the pandemic on kids, and recommends that parents and support systems not only consider action plans for lockdown, but also to ameliorate symptoms post-pandemic. Enter: Yoga for kids.
Ana Hansen has been teaching yoga to children since around 2003, just a couple of years after she started teaching elementary school. “It just felt so natural for me that as long as I was going on my own personal journey with yoga, that I would share that with the kids,” she says. “I remember my first classes and my kids just loving it. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, they love it as much as I love it.’ And I could already see them lighten up.”
In the early 2000s, the idea of social and emotional learning—which Ana notes is sometimes referred to as character development, or growth mindset—was starting to take root as part of typical school curriculum. “As I learned more about the Yoga Sutras,” says Ana, “I realized that this was social–emotional learning at its roots.”
The idea of “mindfulness” wasn’t as mainstream then as it has become in the past decade. In the beginning, Ana didn’t formalize the practices she was doing with her students. Administrators would observe her classroom, and note that she would have students put their heads down and focus on their breathing, for example. She only faced pushback from a parent once, when she was teaching in Sedona. Though the parent did not want their child to participate in so-called mindfulness, the child kept sneaking back into class.
“Especially when I teach in a public school,” says Ana, “I tailor it to the population and the needs of the children. My intention has always been the same—I go into teaching, in any capacity, coming from the Sutras, even though I may not explicitly reference the Sutras or my guru. But I’m allowing my heart’s meaning and intention to guide me every step of the way,” she says.
Why Kids Need Yoga
It’s not just in the midst of a global pandemic that mindfulness can be empowering for children. “They need to know that they have inner wisdom,” says Ana. “They need to know that they have an inner voice that is powerful and profound, and that’s what mindfulness does for them. It clears out the external loudness of noise, and brings them inward and connects them to something back.”
Without these types of programs, children can grow into adults who never learn how to connect to that intuition. “If we can give them just a little spark of curiosity in that direction,” says Ana, “we’ve done our job.”
It’s not simply esoteric—yoga and mindfulness programs have plenty of practical applications for kids as well. “Mindfulness is empowering children to be resilient,” says Ana. This observation is backed up by science: In overly simplistic terms, yoga and mindfulness are proven to increase vagal tone, and reduce the fight-or-flight response. This, in turn, builds neural pathways that allow for response over reaction, and the reduction of harmful hyperarousal.
“I think that resilience and hope are two things that children need to be given by the adults,” says Ana. We teach them resilience by teaching them—and by example—to release the things over which we do not have control. Our belief in their generation, and in their future, is what teaches them hope.
The Long-Term Changes
Ana says that the increasing popularity of yoga and mindfulness programs for kids will absolutely change their generation. “Bullying doesn’t really exist in a setting where yoga is happening,” says Ana, “there’s not the sense of adolescent conflicts to the extreme.” With consistent access to yoga and mindfulness programs, Ana believes that we’ll see schools not only get a better grip on the mental health of their students, but also an increase in general consciousness and awareness in the kids as they grow up and enter adult culture and society.
“These kids are ready for society and culture to change—for this to be a more creative society,” says Ana. Yoga and mindfulness programs could be the point of entry for many children to envision what a more peaceful and compassionate world could be. “I really do feel that the next generation—we’re seeing it with Malala, we’re seeing it with Greta—we’re seeing them come in and say ‘we’re ready to take care of the Earth, we’re ready to work together, and we’re ready to change the world.’ And they’re not waiting for us.”
Ana recognizes that there are lots of options for children’s yoga out there, but she hopes that as kids’ yoga continues to become more prevalent, other teachers join her in teaching more than physical asana. “There’s a lot of kids’ yoga that’s not necessarily based on the philosophy of yoga,” she says. “I hope that that changes and evolves in the future.” As the field continues to grow, Ana hopes to continue being the bridge between yoga philosophy and peace curriculum in childhood education.
“If we can teach children problem solving skills from yoga philosophy, to me, that’s really exciting,” she says. “And it’s so empowering for children.”
Ana is the author of Yoga For Big Hearts & Little Hands: A Handbook of Yoga Poses for Children, in addition to her work as a teacher and educator. To join Ana in the Yoga Unify Founding Circle, and to learn more about what Yoga Unify membership can do for you, click here.