A group of preschool children sit on yoga mats, feet in “butterfly pose” baddha konasana), chanting their classmate’s name in unison. “A-lex-a!” they sing, moving their knees up and down like wings. Three-year-old Shira, with a head full of corkscrew curls, is next. She immediately chooses a forward fold to represent her name. “Shi-ra!”, the group chants as they bend forward rhythmically. All under the age of four, some of these children are barely old enough to attend pre-school. But every Friday morning, in between story time and painting, they take a 45 minute yoga class with mini yogi instructor, Shana Meyerson. And according to Sarah Cunin, director of the Chabad of Malibu, parents are clamoring to enroll their children on Fridays precisely because of this class. “Many parents take yoga themselves and so they are thrilled that we offer it to their children,” she said. “And the kids…well they just love it. Every time they see Shana pull up, they start pushing their toys and classroom furniture out of the way to make room for the yoga mats.”
All across the country, kids are rolling out their yoga mats, hissing like snakes in cobra, and chanting Om’s ( or sha-loms in the case of the children at the Chabad) before resting in corpse pose. And in Los Angeles, yoga for kids has reached beyond private pre-school classes to yoga studios all over the city, after-school enrichment programs, and elementary school physical education classes.
Teaching yoga to kids however, is unlike teaching yoga to adults. According to Marcia Wenig, national expert on yoga for children and the founder of the “Yoga Kids” video, teaching yoga to children should be oriented towards facilitating rather than teaching, using children’s natural sense of exploration and play to guide the class. She points out that when yogis developed yoga asanas thousands of years ago, they used plants and animals for inspiration. Children are always delighted, she adds, to assume the role of animals, trees, flowers, warriors.
This process of teaching children as they explore yoga led former special-education teacher Jodi Komitor to create Next Generation Yoga in New York City, the only yoga studio in the country devoted exclusively to yoga for kids. Next Generation Yoga, five floors above a busy street in Manhattan, draws kids of all ages– from infants to teens– to explore, focus, and unwind. “Today’s kids live in such a fast paced world. So we use yoga asanas, games, stories, and our imaginations to give them a time to quiet their minds and focus on their bodies,” she said.
Also the author of the book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga with Kids”, Komitor has found that this style of “play” yoga helps kids develop body awareness and strength, internal concentration and attention, and even personal tools for stress management. Parents also notice their children’s improvement in these areas.
Sue LaViolette is a long-time yoga practitioner who recently decided to enroll her two children, Sydney, 8, and Max, 4, in a mini yogis class taught by Shana Meyerson (who trained with Jodi Komitor). In a matter of months, La Violette has noticed an increase in her children’s body awareness and posture. She has even noticed that the yogic breathing techniques they learned from Meyerson are accessible during moments of stress or frustration. “All I have to do is remind them, ‘use your breathing’, and they do”, states La Violette.
Indeed, some parents may be eager to provide their children with a tool for managing stress. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, today’s kids are faced with more stress than the children of previous generations were, and have fewer social supports available. Dina Schulman, a local yoga teacher and psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of children and families, notes that children find yoga a welcome relief from their everyday lives that are often booked solid with activities. “There is a high prevalence of children who are desperate for down- time. Yoga is a time where they can learn, in a non-judgmental way, to relax and be still”, she explains.
While young children may benefit most from a playful, unstructured approach to yoga, older children and adolescents are developmentally ready for some yogic philosophy alongside an asana practice….
Despite varying approaches and teaching styles, all yoga teachers for children echo the same sentiment: yoga for children, regardless of age, should be fun. When Sue La Violette’s son, Max, is asked about his favorite part of yoga, he belts out the words to “The Yogi Pokey” and begins moving into a sun salutation. When Milana is asked the same question, she answers, “I love every part of yoga. It is all fun!” Shana Meyerson’s tiny preschool students clamor for their favorite part of yoga: sitting in lotus pose at the end of class and chanting “Om”. From pre-schoolers to teenagers, children of all ages and backgrounds are finding joy and peace from their yoga journeys.