Ready. Set. Yoga!
Looking at the benefits – and differences – of yoga for kids
By Jamey Bradbury
Serenity permeates the yoga studio as students drop their bellies and lift their heads in “cow pose.” The roomful of yogis takes a relaxing breath. Then:
This isn’t your average yoga class. It’s yoga for kids! Children from toddlers to teens are reaping the benefits of yoga – but the classes they take aren’t your typical yoga session.
Kids as young as 2 or 3 can start to learn yoga, says Sacha Demby, a trainer with Kidding Around Yoga, where teachers learn how to keep the littlest yogis engaged. “But parents have to change their expectations; a child’s yoga class doesn’t look anything like a grown-up’s,” she explains.
For instance, during the relaxation pose, as Demby leads her students through a meditation, “The kids might be rolled up in their mats like burritos. We even sing a song that encourages it!”
Music plays a big role in these sessions, for getting students moving or keeping their attention. Students play games, too, like “Yogi Says” or “Toe-ga,” in which they pick up pompoms using only their toes. Even the silliest exercises teach small children patience and body awareness.
Teachers keep classes short, from 30 minutes to an hour, rather than the typical 60-90 minute adult class. They also break children’s sessions up into shorter segments to keep them engaged, and emphasize play over correcting their students’ form.
“It’s more about moving and feeling good,” describes Marsha Munsell, co-owner of Heart Stream Yoga in Fairbanks. “The poses are the same, but you call them ‘alligator pose’ or ‘caterpillar pose’ to bring more fun into the class. Or you’ll play peek-a-boo between your feet to get the kids to do a forward fold.”
Mary McCormick, of All Life Is Yoga in Eagle River, finds that in addition to developing balance and strength, the emphasis yoga places on relaxation and concentration equips her youngest students with skills they’ll use long-term.
“They learn to listen to their breath and to be mindful,” McCormick says, “and that can help them with self-control or with controlling anxiety when they’re older.”
The Older Set
“Kids are built for yoga,” asserts Munsell. “Their little bodies can do things adult bodies can’t.”
But recently she’s started noticing kids whose flexibility is diminishing as they get older. “I see children who can’t touch their toes, their muscles are so tight. Yoga lets them maintain elasticity, which helps with things like preventing injury when they play sports.”
At about age 9, kids can begin to work on the same yoga principals adults practice, though many children’s instructors will still have their older students change poses more often, or hold poses for a shorter period of time. “Kids should practice gradually, and their participation should be based on their own interest and curiosity,” says Jennifer Perkins of Dharma Hot Yoga. “Encourage them to only do what they can.”
Kids can take specialized classes like hot yoga, too, but Perkins advises, “Adults and kids react to heat differently, so those under 18 should always be supervised. They should be urged to take it easy and know their limits, which in itself is a useful thing to learn.”
Older kids also gain psychological benefits from practicing yoga, says Demby. “In yoga, you try to check your ego at the door. That’s a huge thing to teach kids – that it doesn’t matter what someone else is thinking or doing.”
Something for Everyone
Demby, who also holds a master’s degree in special education, has also seen students with special needs gain self-assuredness by doing yoga. “Kids on the autism spectrum like space and boundaries,” she explains. “So you can say, ‘That’s your mat, and you can do whatever poses you want,’ and they’ll thrive on that freedom.”
Even the toughest 8th-grade boy can be lured into trying yoga. “Boys in my classes have said, ‘Yoga’s for sissies!’ Then I bust out a side crow, and they’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s not yoga – that’s breakdancing!’ Every kid, no matter what age, has a hook.”
Kids can take what they learn from yoga into the real world, too. Demby leads her young students through calming exercises where they chant “peace begins with me,” and she’s seen firsthand the effect meditation has on even her wilder students. “Kids at recess will get mad, then they stand there breathing, chanting ‘peace begins with me,’ and they talk themselves out of fighting.”
From greater balance and strength to increased creativity and concentration, there’s not a kid who can’t reap some kind of benefit from child-focused yoga, she asserts.
“Children taking class with adults is fun, but there’s something special about ‘kid-ified’ yoga,” Demby says. “Those classes can change the world, one peaceful little kid at a time.”