Affirmations have become a buzzword on the internet, but their real power can be lost in the white noise of wellness and personal development. I love using affirmations in my kid’s yoga class, and I start them with very young tots. They’re one of the most simple, easy-to-practice tools we have to begin to reshape our thoughts and connect with our true self.
What are affirmations?
Affirmations are positive statements framed in the present tense, designed to challenge negative thought patterns. The most straightforward affirmations are I statements. A favorite affirmation from yoga teacher Susanna Barkataki is, “I am doing enough. I am enough. I have enough.” The Little Engine That Could is famous for, “I think I can, I think I can!”
Some other affirmations might be:
I will accomplish everything I need to do today.
I love and accept myself just as I am.
I am exactly who my students need me to be.
I move through my day with joy and ease.
Affirmations can be written down, spoken aloud, or repeated in one’s mind. The key is to find a negative thought or belief that needs challenging, find the phrase to combat it, and then repeat that phrase to yourself regularly. Remember, we are re-wiring the brain, so doing this once is not enough. Our mind needs to interact with the positive thought more often than the negative thought if we expect it to change its automatic response.
Affirmations Are Not Mantras
Western yoga culture often uses the terms mantra and affirmation interchangeably. As yoga teachers, it’s important for us to understand that, while they are related and sometimes serve a similar purpose, they are not the same. Mantra (pronounced mun-trah) translated literally to mind tool, so the confusion is understandable. After all, affirmations are also mind tools. We can look at it this way: all knives are utensils, but not all utensils are knives.
Historically, mantras were used during meditation. In yogic philosophy, each mantra has a distinct meaning, purpose, and–importantly–unique vibrational frequency. The tone, rhythm, and physical vibration of each individual mantra is believed to alter consciousness in a particular way.
Please be mindful to avoid appropriating Sanskrit terms and practices. If you want to introduce mantra to your students, they are more than capable of understanding the concept. And if you want to work with affirmations, the practice is just as legitimate and worth teaching. There is never a need to exotify our lessons in the name of making them sound “more authentic.”
How Do Affirmations Work?
This explanation oversimplifies things a bit but will give you a general understanding of the neuroscience at play:
Part of our brain is responsible for automating processes. Remember how much you had to think about what you were doing when you first learned to ride a bike or write your name? If you’ve been doing it regularly for a long time, you probably don’t think much about it at all. You might even have trouble breaking down all the steps involved if you had to teach someone else to do it. Whenever we take any action, from driving to thinking, our brain sends messages across neural pathways. The more frequently that pathway is used, the more automatic it becomes.
What does this mean? The more time we spend on negative thoughts, the more automatic they become. And, when we incorporate positive affirmations, we rewire the pathways in our brain so that those positive thoughts get to be in the driver’s seat.
An Affirmation’s Four Superpowers
There are three main things affirmations do for us, and they are all things we’re already doing when we practice yoga.
- Changing Perspective: Our brain has something called “neuroplasticity,” which means it can change and adapt. When we keep using positive affirmations, we’re rewiring our brain to see the world in a more positive light. It helps us focus on the good things around us.
- Reducing Stress: When we repeat positive affirmations, especially during stressful times, it can calm down the amygdala. This reduces the stress response and helps us feel better.
- Building Confidence: Positive affirmations can boost our self-esteem. When we say things like “I am capable” or “I am strong,” our brain starts to believe it. This can strengthen the connections in our brain related to self-confidence.
Using Affirmations in Kids Yoga Class
In a practice that is all about finding our highest, most true self and honoring the divinity within, speaking to ourselves kindly and training our brains to default to positive thoughts comes with the territory. Affirmations are an excellent introduction to that practice, as well as to the idea of ahimsa.
Affirmations With Toddlers and Preschoolers
Affirmations can be used with the youngest children. As with all things, the younger the students, the simpler the words need to be. Toddlers and preschoolers will often naturally say, “I can do it!” That’s a great place for us to start. During circle time, you might create a chant, tapping laps or the floor as the class repeats, “I can do it!” You could also end class similarly, with a few “I statements” and accompanying motions that tots can take home and continue to work with.
Elementary Aged Affirmations
Older children might do a variation of the Kundalini Sa Ta Na Ma meditation, tapping each finger to their thumb and replacing the traditional mantra with their affirmation. Any four-word affirmation will do. (Pro tip: Kids frequently offer three-word affirmations. I am kind. I am smart. Adding so between I am and the adjective will usually do the trick.)
You can also create a game of echoing affirmations during trickier yoga poses. Maybe you call out, “I am strong,” during a longer plank or other challenging hold, and students repeat it together. “I am steady,” during tree pose…or “I can laugh at myself,” when a balancing pose is feeling wobbly.
At least once a semester, I base a kids yoga class around an affirmation-based flow. After discussing what affirmations are, we review four poses and four affirmations. I like Warrior poses for this.
- I Am Strong: Warrior 1
- I Am Brave: Warrior 2
- I Am Kind: Warrior 3
- I Am Wise: Humble Warrior
Usually, by the time I pull out this lesson, the students are comfortable with all the warrior poses, and it’s a fun challenge to link them together. Pacing with movements with their affirmations helps them create a flow that moves at a kid-friendly pace, and calling out the affirmations feels fun and empowering.
Affirmations in Yoga for Tweens & Teens
By middle school, students may begin to feel uncomfortable yelling out affirmations during yoga class. But, they’re also beginning to be quite aware of their inner critic and of the negative messages they have internalized. At this age, we can have mat chats about our limiting beliefs, workshop affirmations that can challenge them, and offer journaling prompts or homework to begin a more regular, personal affirmation practice.
As you introduce affirmations to your kids yoga classes, remember that they are more than just words; they’re the seeds of confidence, kindness, and resilience. If you’re lucky enough to work with the same kids over a length of time, enjoy watching their mindset shift and watch how they begin to use positive self-talk all on their own.