Full text of interview for “Sign Me Up!”, Simon and Schuster, 2003
Shana Meyerson, founder of mini yogis yoga for kids in Los Angeles, CA
How long have you been a yoga teacher?
I have been teaching yoga for three years. I spent a decade working in Corporate America before I found a higher calling.
What are the general benefits kids gain by taking yoga? Mental benefits? Physical benefits?
Children benefit immensely from the practice of yoga. The physical benefits are enormous. Yoga not only works the muscles, but it massages the internal organs at the same time. So, while children utilize every muscle from their biceps to their baby toes, they are also taking care of their kidneys and stomachs, thyroids, pituitaries, and every organ in between. This allows for healthy regulatory, digestive, circulatory, and nervous systems, to name a few. In my opinion, however, the primary benefit really comes from the peace and equanimity that yoga fosters. Yoga provides a non-competitive forum where every child is perfect. When children learn new poses, they have strong senses of accomplishment and pride without ever having to win or lose. In yoga, children are encouraged to practice deep breathing for stress control, meditation for focus and concentration, and respect and love for themselves, the earth and all its inhabitants.
What are the typical qualities of kids who most excel in yoga classes? Do they need to have innate talent?
There is no such thing as excelling in yoga class. Every child (and this goes for adults too!) who puts in effort is doing yoga perfectly. The integrity of yoga is held in the effort, not the execution. Certainly the ability to focus, concentrate, and follow directions will help a child to get the most out of his or her yoga practice, but the only “talent” really required is an open mind. We live in such a competitive society. Yoga provides a sanctuary from that competition and a place where a kid can just be a kid without worrying if he or she is the best, or the prettiest, or the smartest, or the strongest. Removing the competition from the practice of yoga helps children to grow into more tolerant and less judgmental human beings. Less judgmental of others and, perhaps more importantly, less judgmental of themselves.
Have you had any experience with hyperactive children or children with ADD? How do they benefit from yoga classes?
Many parents send their children to yoga classes expecting it to be a “cure” for ADD. I have two things to say about that. One: Yes, I have worked with a lot of children with hyperactive tendencies. And yes, they do benefit from the practice. It helps them to calm their minds, calm their bodies, and focus. Deep breathing, relaxation, meditation, and some of the more complex poses challenge a child’s concentration and forces him or her to live in the present moment with a calm, still mind (the literal meaning of “asana”–the name given to each yoga pose). ,However, I don’t believe in labeling children as “hyperactive,” “ADD,” “ADHD,” or anything else. I strongly believe that labeling hurts children’s self-esteem and creates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one likes to be apologized for. Imagine walking into your first day of work and having your boss introduce you to everyone as “This is Shana, she has real issues concentrating on anything for an extended period of time.” It would hurt. Why do so many people assume that children don’t have those same feelings? They do. Two: In a lot of my “ADD” students, I find that the really attention deficit does not come from within, but from without. Many of these children just suffer from a lack of love and attention at home. I literally have “ADD/ADHD” children (I am using these for lack of better terms) who quiet down immediately if I allow them to sit in my lap, share my mat, or be a demonstrator. There are a lot of children out there who suffer from lack of attention. I think that if parents made the extra time and effort (I know sometimes it’s hard…but it’s important!) to spend quality time with their children each day–or at least each week–many of these seemingly hyper children would fall into calmer behavior patterns.
What usually causes a child to struggle or to drop out of yoga classes?
I can’t say that I have seen children struggle in my yoga classes. I always make the activities accessible and encourage children to listen to their bodies.–to never do anything that hurts and to simply try their best. Children who don’t return tend to be the older (12+) boys. Yoga doesn’t usually fit into the societal dictates for teenage boys. Of course, I can only speak for my own experience. When choosing a yoga teacher for your child, make sure the child feels comfortable with the teacher and that they really connect. Yoga is a very personal practice and should only be done with a teacher that makes his or her students feel comfortable and engaged.
What is the best age for a child to start taking yoga classes?
Yoga can be started as early as 3 weeks old. This is a facilitated practice whereby the teacher (or parent) moves the infant gently into various yoga poses and movements. As long as the movements are natural and gentle, the child will benefit from improved flexibility and, as mentioned before, healthier regulatory, digestive, circulatory, and nervous systems. Infant yoga also gives a chance for parents to bond with their children in a gentle and loving way. There are even basic pranayama (breathing) exercises that a parent can do with his or her child that allows the breath to naturally synchronize them. As far as independent yoga classes are concerned (i.e. the child doing the movements by his or herself), children are usually capable by about two years old. It depends on the child, though. Every child develops at a unique pace and that pace must be respected. When a child is capable of following simple directions and controlling his or her basic motor skills, he or she is ready for yoga. I encourage parents to join their children’s classes if the kids are under age five. It helps children to focus and feel secure. But, again, that is an arbitrary number. I have children who like to be independent at two and ones that prefer their parents to participate at eight. It all depends on the child.
What should parents look for in a in a program before signing up their child for yoga classes?
The most important thing to look for is a teacher who is passionate not only about yoga, but about children as well. Yoga is a loving discipline and you want to make sure that your teacher radiates that love and is able to pass it on to your child. In my experience, I have found that most yoga teachers who have dedicated their practice to children do have these qualities. Let your child meet the teacher or have a “test run” before signing him or her up for an ongoing program. There are different types of children’s practices out there. Some are very serious–more like the adult classes, just scaled down for kids–and some are more playful. I am of the playful school. I enjoy using themes, games, props, toys, books, music…you name it…to keep the class fun, engaging, and always different for the children. Personally, I recommend the playful classes. They allow children to drop their defenses and apprehensions and really dive into the moment.
What type of yoga do you teach and why?
My personal practice is in power yoga, which I have taught to adults for years. I love it because it challenges the mind, body, and spirit to grow to its full potential. For obvious reasons, power yoga would not work for children. It is too intense and strenuous. So how would I label the type of yoga I teach to children? It’s mini yogis yoga for kids. I couldn’t really label it more succinctly. The program I’ve developed doesn’t fit nicely into any yoga box. It’s fun, engaging, noncompetitive yoga. That’s all. It’s a brand of yoga that allows children to be happy, healthy, free, and loving.
Are any costs involved of which a parent new to the activity should be aware?
The costs of yoga are pretty minimal. Classes tend to run about $10-20 a piece…though you can usually get package discounts. Parents will probably also want to buy their child a mat, which cost about $20, so that the child can practice at home. (Most studios provide the mats for the actual classes).
Are there any common injuries you’ve observed? Safety precautions?
The only injury I’ve personally encountered was a splinter that a child got practicing on an outdoor patio. Yoga, when done mindfully, does not easily lend itself to injuries. Quite the opposite, it is meant to be a healing and gentle practice. Children have to be encouraged to listen to their bodies and respect their limits. They should be told to never do anything that hurts or feels wrong and to never worry what anyone else is doing. There are six billion people on this planet and six billion different ways to do each yoga pose. Including not doing it at all. As such, children have to be made to feel comfortable “opting out” or modifying the poses to whatever works for them.. Working in a warm space helps to keep the muscles supple, resilient, and injury-free. What resources do you use to keep up to date in this field? I read, read, read. Books, periodicals, Internet articles, websites…anything I can get my hands on really. Children’s yoga is a fairly new practice. A lot of my work comes from trying out a lot of different teachers and yoga styles around town (Los Angeles is full of incredible yogis and yoginis!), observing other children’s teachers (not only for yoga, but for all subjects), watching children in action (how they play, interact, and learn), and milling through toy stores, science stores, book stores, and craft stores for new ideas. Children’s yoga is grounded in a sound understanding of yoga and its precepts, and flourishes through creativity. Most of my resources are in my head. Trying to always create new, fun, and exciting practices for my kids.