It’s no big secret that children in Japan need to relax a bit more. With many undergoing entrance exams at age 12 — some even at age 6 — today’s pre-teens are pressured to compete with their peers and be stellar academic performers from early on. Then there is ijime (bullying), a perennial problem, as well as a variety of other interpersonal issues that often add daily stress to little lives.
According to a 2006 survey by the Benesse Educational Research and Development Center, around 60 percent of elementary, junior and high-school students felt “irritated,” a 2-to-4 percentage point increase over results from 1990. A health ministry study of 600 junior high-school students released in May, meanwhile, found that one in four of them are depressed.
Though it might be years before we start seeing our children, like the more mature stressed-out members of society, sit back in a chair at a “relaxation” salon for a quick foot massage, there is now slow-but-steady momentum among educators and parents to explore various options for letting children wind down, using such common tools as yoga and massage.
“Kids have a lot of stress and a lot of expectations in society,” says Angie Bow, founder of Little Namaste, which offers yoga classes in Kichijoji and Aoyama, Tokyo for kids aged 4 to 12. Bow says that yoga has a wide variety of benefits for children, including stress and anxiety reduction. “Yoga is time for them just to relax and forget about ‘all that’ just for a second, and focus on themselves and learn how to relax.”
Bow, who is trained to teach yoga to babies and children, says the young children taking her classes now know the difference between poses, and how to use them outside their classes.
When students are stressed out, they like to do the “child pose,” which they often request in the class. (To do the child pose, sit down with your legs tucked under you, then stretch your arms and put your head on the ground.)
“It’s very relaxing, so when they do it, they don’t get up for a few minutes,” she says. “Also deep inhalation and exhalation (is good for relieving stress). By coming to class, moms always say that at home or at school or wherever their children go, they like to show their yoga poses to their friends, because they are so proud of what they can do.”
But teaching children — who are by nature restless — the practice of yoga, a spiritual training that originated in India — takes skills and creativity. Reiko Asano, a yoga instructor who runs a studio called baby Lotus in the upscale residential area of Futako-Tamagawa, Tokyo, is another one of the few teachers in Japan with a certification for teaching yoga to kids. She says yoga is also good for autistic children and those with Down’s syndrome. During a recent class, she showed four children ages 5 to 8 how to do the various poses, with the help of stuffed animals, songs and games.
“We’ll be making a pizza now!” announces Asano at one point in her hourlong session. She instructs the kids to sit with their legs spread wide and imagine the space between their legs as a slice of pizza. Next, she asks what toppings they like. “Let’s sprinkle slices of olive across the whole slice. What next? Cheese? OK, let’s add cheese. Tomatoes? Great. Now, let’s put the pizza into the oven.”
Then she held the fictional pizza with her hands, stretching her arms forward. Children followed — excited by the pizza-making act and not realizing that they were actually stretching their bodies to the limit.
“I liked the ‘tree pose,’ it was fun,” said Takumi Bunno, 8, after Asano’s class. He decided to be a cherry tree when asked to choose the kind of tree he liked to be. (To do the tree pose, lift your right foot from a standing position, bend your right knee and press your foot against the inside of your left leg. Then put your palms together over your head.)
Eriko Otsuki, a mother from Yokohama whose 5-year-old son was participating in a class, said that what separates yoga from other after-school activities is that it’s not competitive. She takes yoga lessons for her own benefit, which led her to sign up her son.
“It helps me communicate with him,” Otsuki said. “I hope my son will learn how to get in touch with himself, instead of competing with others.”
At the end of her class, Asano puts on mellow mood music, gathers the children in a circle and has them shake hands with each other. Then they quietly play a game: Without moving an inch, Asano applies subtle pressure with her right hand as a signal to the person sitting on her right, who then passes the signal on to the girl on the right, until it has gone all the way around the circle.
“This routine is called the electric circle, and it is meant to make kids realize that we are connected to each other,” Asano says. “It allows you to calm down and realize that, when you breathe in, your face moves, and that the person next to you also moves.”
Another approach used to help children relax through physical touch is “kids massage,” in which children, under the supervision of a fully qualified adult, learn how to give each other massages.
While kids massage is far from common at Japanese schools, one forward-looking institution exploring the idea is Omakubo Elementary School in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward. Masako Yanagisawa, a public health nurse and mother of two, teaches kids there how to perform simple massages on their classmates’ hands. Yanagisawa is trained through the Massage in Schools Program originally developed by Swedish and Canadian practitioners of infant massage. The program is now used in schools throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Yanagisawa says the program, aimed at children aged 4 to 12, helps participants tame their aggression and feel more confident about themselves. One session lasts about 30 minutes, and involves about 10 massage routines. Children learn how to stroke, pat and rub each other on the back, shoulders and the head through the routines, which bear child-friendly names such as “ice skating,” “bakery” and “hairdresser.”
As she gave a session to 11 students recently, as part of the after-school program, the children were at first chatty and easily distracted. But as time passed, the atmosphere grew more serious. The kids getting massages looked drowsy, with some even yawning.
“The power of touching people is actually quite amazing,” Yanagisawa says. “If you give and get a massage, you realize how tender and affectionate you must be to the other person.”
Noriko Kato, director of the department of health research and promotion at the National Institute of Public Health, says kids massage could be a useful tool to enhance communication among children. She believes that the declining birthrate in Japan means that there are fewer opportunities for children to learn how to interact with one another — even if that experience once came through conflict, such as petty fistfights between siblings.
A child-development expert, Kato has studied how angry children begin to feel positive if they are given 5 to 10 minutes of quiet time alone. She says that yoga helps children who throw tantrums to learn how to control their anger, as it gives them the tools to deal with stressful situations and calm down.
“Children are feeling various kinds of stress, from interactions with their schoolteachers and parents, and through problems such as bullying,” Kato says. “While I don’t know in detail how the psychological process of yoga works, I think it should be effective in stopping negative feelings from amplifying. It’s often the case that angry children cannot tell that they are angry.”