Yoga is an ancient practice that incorporates mental focus with physical strength and flexibility, often accompanied by introspection and meditation.
Not something that brings to mind young children, is it?
Yet a small number of yoga instructors in the Inland Northwest offer classes for children, aimed at presenting the popular workout regimen in a fun and educational manner.
Fun being the key.
Jennifer Haler of Coeur d’Alene started Yoga Fun this past fall, while Amy Iverson of Spokane opened Spokane Youth Yoga in 2005. Both women have backgrounds in education, and both keep their youth classes playful and active, using songs, games and stories to draw in their young “yogis.”
“It’s pretty easy to do yoga with (kids), because when it’s presented in a playful manner, they don’t really know they’re exercising,” Iverson said. “We incorporate a lot of imagination, and the benefits (of yoga) sneak in. They are getting this physical exercise and begin getting this focus of the mind.”
Iverson, who is certified through the Radiant Child Yoga training program, offers classes for children ages 5 and older. Haler, who is trained through Yoga Fit and is working toward her certification, opens her class to children as young as 18 months, provided they can walk. With the youngest yogis, parent participation is required.
Haler’s experience working in day care centers and in classrooms helped shape her class for young children. There’s a variety of activity. A recent session included story time and a dance set to a song by the Wiggles. The students played a game in which they hopped like a bunny and then froze into their favorite yoga pose.
“Adult yoga classes tend to be very internal, very quiet,” Haler said. “It’s hard for kids to work that way.”
The fact that many of the basic yoga poses are named after animals or plants – cow, cat, tree, downward-facing dog, butterfly, to name a few – makes it fun for kids to learn, Haler said. A stay-at-home mom, Haler turned to yoga during a particularly stressful time in her life.
“I was amazed at how much better I felt, how much better I slept,” she said. “I could deal with the stress easier. It’s helped me out quite a bit.”
When her children – Aspen, 6, Winter, 4, and Kaelin, 2 – started copying her moves, she thought she was on to something.
“When I was doing it at home, the kids were really getting into it.” Haler said. “Since I had my (education) degree, I thought it would be a lot of fun to do this with other kids.”
The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics Web site includes a number of papers dating back to the 1980s touting the benefits of yoga for children. Yoga has been used to help terminally ill children deal with end-of-life issues, to battle the childhood obesity epidemic and even to help at-risk teens reduce stress without turning to drugs, alcohol or tobacco.
When adults do yoga, many find that it not only improves their strength and flexibility, but it helps them clear their minds and calm their emotions. Neither Haler nor Iverson teach much meditation in their classes. But that doesn’t mean their young pupils aren’t able to use yoga techniques to make themselves feel better.
“What yoga does is it offers this incredible opportunity for movement and release of energy,” Iverson said. “So you’re active and moving, but the flip side of it offers an opportunity for this calming of the mind.”
Thus, she added, even children who might be more active get a chance to relax.
“I know of kids who when they are sore and achy, I’ve heard of them doing their stretches on their own,” Haler said. “I’ve heard of many children using breathing techniques, maybe calming themselves when they’re crying or using ‘breath of joy’ to make themselves feel happier.”
Haler’s oldest daughter will turn to the “volcano breath” when she gets upset. The breath begins with the palms together in the classic heart center pose. As you breathe in, raise your hands up over your head. Then breathe out, releasing your arms outwards, making volcano noises along the way.
“Yoga just benefits their flexibility and also there tends to be a sense of calmness, which is nice in children,” Haler added with a laugh.
Dr. Maj StormoGipson, a pediatrician with the Valley Young People’s Clinic in Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake, said she would advise parents of her patients that yoga is a good physical activity to try out.
“I think any activity that helps instill both some physical control and mastery as well as some mental focusing – and yoga goes both – is great,” she said. “I think it’s fascinating to think about exposing kids to that at a young age.”