Yoga for Adoptive Families: Guided Imagery Meditations for Wellbeing and Connection

In my previous post, I discussed mindfulness practices that you can do with your child to cultivate focus and embodied awareness. To be sure, guided imagery meditations and mindfulness practices often overlap and complement one another. When I ask students to sit still like a frog and pay attention to their breath, for example, I use imagery to help them achor their body and mind in a concrete context to which they can relate. At the same time, however, not all guided imagery meditations are mindfulness meditations. Whereas mindfulness practices ask children simply to notice their embodied experiences, whatever those experience happens to be, many guided imagery meditations are more directive, with an explicit goal of promoting particular emotional, mental, and physical experiences. Such goals often include increased relaxation and calm; a sense of felt safety and trust; positive self worth; and "heartfulness" towards one's self and others. Of course, many of the qualities that guided imagery meditations promote can enhance children's mindfulness experience. Plus, practicing mindfulness often leave children feeling more peaceful, calm and good about themselves. Yet deliberately promoting such qualities is not the primary aim of mindfulness.

Although guided imagery meditations can be valuable for all children, occupational therapist and children's yoga teacher Barbara Neiman notes that they can be especially good for children with trauma histories. Many children who have experienced trauma due to attachment disruption, neglect and abuse, poverty, and even medical issues have had their sense of safety and trust--both in themselves and other people--broken. They may have a difficult time calming down and relaxing due to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. They may have a difficult time cultivating a sense of inner peace or believing that such inner peace is possible. They may also have difficult time believing in the goodness of themselves and others. Thus, guided imagery meditations can help children work with their trauma by providing them with relatively safe and low key opportunities to cultivate the aforementioned qualities in themselves, as well as in relation to others and the world around them. Indeed, a growing body of research has demonstrated the emotional and physical healing power of guided imagery. Below, I discuss two general types of guided imagery that may be helpful for your child's healing process and your efforts to promote a sense of safety, trust, and connection between the two of you.

Body-based guided imagery: Many guided meditations for children focus on cultivating safety and trust in one's body, a sense of inner worth and goodness, and "heartfulness" towards one's embodied self. Such meditations may, for example, encourage children to visualize their heart growing bigger and brighter inside their body; visualize a flower blooming inside of their heart; identify where inside their body (even if it's only in the tip of one toe) a sense of calm, light, and/or safety. In my sessions with kids, I often create guided meditations that relate to other class activities. After having my students mindfully observe color-changing tea lights and identify the color that brings them a sense of peace (or calm, courage, love, etc.), I will then lead them through a guided meditation that encourages them to breathe that color in and fill up their body with it.

Place-based guided imagery: Another type of guided imagery meditation are those that encourage children to visualize themselves in a safe, relaxing, and/or loving place. Such meditations might ask children to imagine themselves sitting in a field of flowers on a sunny day, floating on top of a still lake, or sitting under a tall strong tree. They also tend to encourage children to use their five senses to invoke feelings of relaxation, safety, peace, or other positive qualities connected to their experience in the imagined place. In some of my yoga sessions, for example, I have led children through a guided imagery meditation in which we are sleeping next to a campfire on the beach. As part of the meditation, I ask them to feel the heat of the campfire on their bodies, smell the ocean air, and listen to the wave crash down on the shore. Sometimes, I will also play an audio track of ocean sounds to deepen the sense of immersion in that imaged place.

If you need ideas for guided imagery meditations, check out some of my favorites: Carolyn Clarke's Imaginations: Fun Relaxation Stories and Meditations for Kids (Volume One) and Imaginations 2: Relaxation Stories and Guided Imagery for Kids, as well as Maureen Garth's Starbright: Meditations for Children. All three of these books include both types of aforementioned meditations, and you can purchase audio versions of them through iTunes. Also feel free to create your own guided imagery meditations based on your child's interests and needs. He could even help create them with you, increasing his sense of agency and self efficacy and providing both of you an opportunity to connect via a fun and creative, and hopefully relaxing activity.

Tailoring Guided Imagery Meditations to Your Child's Abilities and Needs

One of the best positions for guided imagery meditations is lying flat on one's back. This position tends to be conducive for not only relaxing but also connecting with the guided imagery in an embodied way. If you ask your child to breathe her calming color into her feet and legs, for example, she'll be better able to do so if they are extended, as opposed to tucked under one another in a seated criss-cross seated position. Of course, you can modify this position for her comfort. If she would relax better with a pillow under her head or knees, that's fine! She may also like a blanket on top of her for warmth and/or relaxation (blankets provide sensory input, which is calming and grounding for some children). All that said, if this position doesn't work for your child in any form, don't push it. I have some students, especially younger ones, who settle down better when they curl up on their sides or lie down on their bellies. Some kids, especially those with trauma histories, may even feel less vulnerable in one of these latter two positions than when lying on their back with their eyes closed and their belly, chest, and face exposed. So start with what is most comfortable for your child, and see how her comfort levels evolve over time. It's also okay if she fidgets a bit. Gently encourage her too settle, but don't force her to be still. As she become more familiar and comfortable with the practice, she may begin to have longer moments of stillness.

You can do guided imagery meditations at anytime, but there are some ideal situations for doing them. If you practice yoga at home with your child, you can end the session with a short meditation. In fact, this is when I tend to do guided imagery meditations during my kids yoga classes and private sessions. Before bedtime is another option, as your child may already be lying down and/or ready to relax. Plus, the calming nature of such meditations can be especially helpful for children who have sleep difficulties. A third scenario in which to practice guided imagery meditation--at least short moments of it--relates to when your child is experiencing a stressful situation, such as an upcoming test, a medical appointment, or a difficult separation from you due to work, school, or another obligation.

Length of time is another consideration. The scripts of many pre-written guided imagery meditations for children last a few minutes. Feel free to adjust the length depending on your child's needs. If she would benefit from a short meditation, just read part of it. If she would benefit from a longer meditation, you can add your own details to it, leave some time at the end for her to meditate on the imagery in silence, or do both.

As you explore differen types of guided imagery meditations, pay attention to your child's responses and reactions. She may relate and respond better to certain types of guided imagery more than others due to her particular interests, personality, cognitive abilities, trauma history, etc. For example, one mother once told me that her child did not like place-based guided imagery meditations because he would imagine something bad happening there (e.g., a fire starting a field of flowers). In that type of situation, body-based guided imagery meditations might be good to try instead.

Using Guided Imagery to Cultivate Connection

As with mindfulness practices, you can use guided imagery sessions to connect with your child. First and foremost, I encourage you to meditate alongside your child, as doing so provides you a short period of relaxation and calm that is conducive for building trust, safety, and connection with your child. Also, meditating with your child enables you to share with one another what your imagery was like and how it made you feel. How you position your bodies can foster connection, as well. If your child is comfortable doing so, lie close to one another, perhaps with the sides of your bodies touching and/or while holdng hands. If your child prefers to lie on his side or sit up for the meditation, consider meditating back-to-back with him, as this position allows you to physically support one another while connecting with each another's breathing. Finally, practice guided meditations, such as Carolyn Clarke's "Loving Kindness" meditation (Imaginations Volume One) or another child-friendly loving kindness meditation that emphasize building healrt-centered connection with others. Or create your own guided imagery to meet you and your child's particular connection-building needs.

Also consider how to best connect with your child when it comes to the reading of the meditation script. Reading the meditation to your child may help her associate you and your voice with relaxation, calm, and nurturing. However, if you find that reading the meditation doesn't work for you, consider using the author's audio version (if one exists) and/or a DIY audio recording of it in your own voice.

Have fun imagining!