Combine exercise with imagination, games, a story and playtime, and it's hard for preschoolers to resist the growing trend of yoga for kids. What is typically thought of as a way for adults to pursue spiritual and physical transformation has become a popular activity for children, and it may even give them skills to better handle life's ups and downs.
Kids' yoga is offered starting as young as preschool age in many yoga and dance studios and parks and recreation departments, and is even appearing in private and public school curriculums across the country.
For the younger set, the names and poses are often altered to suit little bodies and appeal to their creativity. Hilery Avritt, owner of Vitality Pilates studio in Seattle, says it is easy to adapt for young children, adding, "I think it is much safer for the children. They are so much more elastic and less prone to injury than adults are." Vitality Pilates offers a family yoga class for all ages, so parents can attend with their kids.
"For the children, we will often tell a fun story or use different words. For example, the term "child's pose" is used for the adult class, and because it is a resting pose, we call it rock pose for the kids. Or, for some of the standing poses, we make fun names and games and they hold the poses for a much shorter time than adults," Avritt says.
"I think it is great that children get introduced to a more formal way of using their body at a young age. It is really good to learn about different energy -- to go to a big energy spike and learn to bring it down. Kids have their own internal drive to rev up their energy and they learn calming techniques in class," says Avritt, also the mother of a 2-year-old who practices yoga.
Karen Kane, a certified YogaKids facilitator, teaches kids' yoga at the Yoga Barn in Issaquah and Two Rivers Yoga in Carnation. "YogaKids focuses a lot on Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory. We try to make sure every child is engaged, so we incorporate things like math, language arts, reading, art, music and interpersonal and intrapersonal skills," Kane says.
Each of Kane's lessons has a theme. "They are learning while doing yoga. We will make books come alive with reading and do poses in the books," Kane says. And what child could resist the pizza pose? Part of an ABC curriculum she uses for preschoolers, kids choose a letter and all poses begin with that letter.
Aki Fairbanks, 3, of Seattle, practices yoga at Sanotsha Yoga studio in Seattle. His mom, Izumi Fairbanks, a freelance presentation designer, says, "It helps him focus, he has made new friends and it teaches him to listen to instructions. It reinforces the interactive dynamic," she says, adding that he is always happy after a yoga session. Aki has even created a few of his own poses, including the dinosaur pose, blending his dinosaur lessons at preschool with yoga.
The Whole Child Learning Center, a Montessori preschool on Queen Anne, incorporates yoga into the curriculum for a unit on taking care of your body. Maria Stobie, the school's owner and director, says the children enjoy it, and they learn about body awareness, balance, strength, posture and flexibility.
In addition, yoga is used therapeutically for a variety of kids with special needs, including Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorder and autism, and has even been shown to help kids with asthma.
Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle received a grant from the Lance Armstrong Foundation and offers yoga to oncology patients. The inpatient program has been extremely popular, and Children's began an outpatient program in June.
"Our goal is to try to make their hospital experience as positive as we can, and give them something pleasurable. Yoga helps them relax and connect with other kids," says Anne Lyons, a physical therapist who teaches yoga at Children's. Lyons points out that all therapists who teach yoga receive special training so they can adapt yoga for oncology patients. Kids may be hooked up to an IV line or be receiving chemotherapy, so it takes a great deal of medical knowledge to adjust the poses. "We do a breathing method we learned for oncology patients. It helps them relax and sleep better, and that is a big issue here," Lyons says.
"It has been a wonderful experience for all of us -- it gives them a chance to get out of their rooms and realize they can do something like this, even though they are so ill," she adds
According to Kane, "so many other sports are competitive and performance-based. Yoga is very personal and it is not a competition. It is also a good opportunity for them to be crazy and silly, so they can get that energy out and then find that relaxing stage."
Jolene Gensheimer is a Bellevue-based freelance writer and mother of two.