The Littlest Yogis: How Kids Are Mastering Meditation and Downward Dog
When my oldest daughter was in the first grade, I enrolled her in a yoga class, hoping it would be a wiggle-friendly way for my little perpetual motion machine to learn self-control. When I dropped her off, the classroom full of leaping children sounded like a herd of elephants. Forty-five minutes later, I returned to pick her up and found a dozen children lying quietly in a circle on the floor in meditation. We were both hooked.
Children’s yoga classes are a relatively new phenomenon in the West. Historically, families in India that practiced yoga would begin their children’s instruction around age 8. But when the practice was first introduced here, it was presented as a discipline for adults.
Only after yoga became widely popular around the turn of the 21st century did a new generation of yoga practitioners begin to look for ways to share yoga with their kids. A few yoga books for children were published around that time, and soon yoga teachers began developing classes especially for children.
Animals, stories and ‘controlled chaos’
What is kids’ yoga? The answer changes depending upon the age of the students. Classes are shorter for younger kids, and the movements are often embedded in stories; the class may pretend to walk to the zoo, where the students visit the different animals with cobra pose and downward-facing dog pose.
When they start to squirm, the teacher might have the kids pretend to be birds and fly around the room before landing on their yoga-mat nests. Some teachers give children the opportunity to talk about their day or their feelings during class.
“It was almost like a play. The teacher told stories and incorporated movement into the stories,” says Seattle mom and nanny Amanda Crews, describing the first time she took her 3- and 4-year-old charges to toddler class at Village Yoga in Seattle.
Using puppets and stuffed animals, the teacher prompted the class to talk about the sounds that animals make and then do poses that represented the animals. “She honored the fact that they were only 3,” says Crews.
Judy McEvoy, an instructor at Village Yoga, teaches classes for children as young as 3 and 4. Her classes emphasize relaxation and self-regulation. Liz Doyle, a Yoga Alliance–registered kids’ yoga trainer who teaches after-school programs throughout the Puget Sound area, describes her approach to kids’ yoga as a “controlled chaos.” She teaches students as young as 2.
As children get older, the classes start to incorporate more characteristics of adult practice. The classes may be longer, and quieter, with more emphasis on correct form. Although storytelling and games continue even into teen classes, the lessons become deeper and more complex. Very young students will learn the names of body parts; older students learn muscle groups; and teens may learn about how healthy choices are a form of self-respect.
While my older daughter started yoga at age 6, my younger daughter has been practicing yoga since before she could sit up. We would play “Toes to the Nose” and other games from the Itsy Bitsy Yoga book. Today, at age 4, she and her sister, now 8, like to teach each other yoga poses (some real, some invented) in the living room after dinner. One clear benefit of yoga: Both girls are proud of their bodies, which they describe in terms of what they can do, rather than how they look.
Into everyday life
Many of the benefits of kids’ yoga are similar to those that adults enjoy. Both adults and children get exercise while developing the relationship between mind and body. But while adults get out of their heads and into their bodies, kids learn that their minds control their bodies.
Doyle says exercise is just the beginning of yoga’s benefits for kids. “It’s not religious, but everyone knows there’s something special about yoga beyond the physical practice.”
Anne Phyfe Palmer, owner of 8 Limbs Yoga, a yoga studio with several Seattle locations, first began offering kids’ yoga classes in 2004 because she wanted her own children to have the opportunity to practice. “Kids learn about meeting life with breath and about being both steady and flexible,” she says. “These are amazing tools.”
Yoga teachers who instruct children are careful to emphasize universal concepts. McEvoy teaches her students yoga breath — slow, deep breathing — to help them calm themselves, and talks about the “yoga way” to remember self-control and kindness. She tells of one student who used his yoga breath at the pediatrician’s office to be brave for his vaccinations.
Parents notice kids bringing their yoga practice into everyday life. Seattle mom Gillian Kim says, “Taking kids’ yoga really helped my 6-year-old to be more aware of his own body, and the breathing exercises allowed him ‘downtime’ while still physically moving his body.”
Interested in seeing if your child takes to yoga? Studios around the Puget Sound region offer a range of kids’ classes. While prenatal and baby-and-me classes are designed for mothers, caregivers and their little ones (usually 2–4 years old) can play together in a parent-tot class.
If you find a cup of coffee and a magazine more relaxing than a room full of preschoolers, there are drop-off classes for kids ages 3–5. Classes before and after school are available for elementary students, tweens and even teens. Some studios are beginning to offer specialized classes. For example, at 8 Limbs on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, there is a yoga series for tween girls that emphasizes confidence building.
To choose a class, watch the teachers to see how they interact with their students. Talk to the teacher about how she modifies the class for your child’s age group — it will be apparent if she has had training or given thought to age-appropriate teaching methods. Don’t overlook convenience: The best class is the one you can actually get your kids to.
Expect to pay $10–$12 per class, or around $15 for parent-tot classes. Most kids’ yoga classes are offered as multi-week series or weeklong camps. “It’s great if kids go every week, but kids will do what is appropriate for them,” Doyle says. “They will do yoga on their own if they need more.”
Bring it home
As my family has found, yoga is also a safe and healthy activity you can share at home — if your kids enjoy it. “As a parent, I believe yoga should be playful for kids,” says Phyfe Palmer.
Doyle recommends letting your child take the lead. Ask them to show you what they’ve learned or to tell you stories and then make up poses together to go with the stories. Whatever you do, she says, “don’t just pop in a yoga DVD for adults and expect them to follow it.”
Writer Gemma Alexander appreciates yoga’s life lessons; for example, yoga has taught her not to mind that she struggles with many poses her 8-year-old calls “easy.”
Yoga for good
As two innovative programs in the Puget Sound area are demonstrating, yoga also has potential to help kids cope with very adult problems.
- Yoga Behind Bars, a volunteer-led nonprofit based in Redmond, offers 10 classes per week to incarcerated youth (as well as to incarcerated adults). Designed in consultation with students, staff psychologists and correctional officers, its youth program aims to help improve students’ self-esteem, and reduce depression, anger and anxiety. The program has been so successful that the Echo Glen youth detention facility in Snoqualmie has integrated the program into its mental health treatment model. Get involved at Yoga Behind Bars.
- The Atlantic Street Center, an educational service provider that focuses on low-income children and youth of color in Seattle’s central and southeast neighborhoods, launched a yoga program last year to help teen parents deal with stress and life challenges. It is currently working to extend the program into 2013.
My Daddy Is a Pretzel: Yoga for Parents and Kids is a picture book for younger grade-school students by internationally known yoga instructor Baron Baptiste.
Yoga Games for Children: Fun and Fitness with Postures, Movements and Breath, written by Danielle Bersma and Marjoke Visscher and illustrated by Alex Kooistra, is a SmartFun Activity Book with illustrated, nature-themed lessons for grade-school kids.
Little Yoga: A Toddler’s First Book of Yoga, written by Rebecca Whitford and illustrated by Martina Selway, is a picture book for parents to read to toddlers that teaches them nine simple yoga poses.
Itsy Bitsy Yoga by Helen Garabedian, pairs movements with rhymes for each developmental stage from birth to toddler, with a second book for toddlers and preschoolers.
Yoga Kids: For Ages 3–6, a series by Marsha Wenig, is one of the originals.
Storyland Yoga: Yoga for Kids and Families (ages 3 to 8), like many kids’ yoga classes, is based on acting out a story with yoga poses.
Shanti Generation: Yoga Skills for Youth Peacemakers Ages 7–16 uses teenage teachers to guide viewers through poses, meditation, and the value of yoga in self-development and emotional well-being.
Yoga for Families: Connect with Your Kids is intended for parents and children older than 4 to practice together.
The online version of Yoga Journal has articles about teaching yoga principles to kids and yoga sequences designed for parents to practice with their kids.
YogaKids is the teacher-training program founded by Marsha Wenig. Its website has a section for parents and another section on introducing yoga in schools.
YoKid, a nonprofit, teaches yoga to children who might not otherwise have access to it.
Cosmic Kids Yoga is a fun YouTube channel with instruction on kids’ yoga.
A sampling of local programs that offer kids' yoga
2245 32nd Ave. W., Seattle
8 Limbs Yoga Studios
The Seattle studios on Capitol Hill and in Wedgwood and Phinney Ridge offer kids' yoga
5340 Ballard Ave N.W., Seattle
2410 Cornhusker Rd.
(not currently offering classes in-studio, but onsite arrangements can be made)
2712 N 21st St. Suite A, Tacoma
6720 Regents Blvd. Suite 102, University Place
Three Trees Yoga
(offers workshops for kids)
204 South 348th St., Federal Way
Liz Doyle: Currently teaches a kids yoga class at the Mercer Island Boys and Girls club, and onsite classes by special arrangement throughout the Puget Sound. 206-660-2321
Dana Smith: Teaches summer camps and on-site programs throughout the Puget Sound by arrangement. 206-890-9996Google+