Imagine a room of children making loud animal sounds: acting like barking dogs, mooing cows, or wild-eyed, roaring lions. The room is filled with wild-child energy. Some kids lift their right arms up in the air, others lift their left, while still others sway wistfully as if propelled by some private breeze. Could this be yoga?
Though it may sound chaotic, engaging kids in high-energy moments of play, during which they embody the animals after which many yoga poses are named, is an important tool for wooing youngsters to do yoga. And loosening up our ideas of what the perfect pose looks like—within the bounds of safety—is key.
That's not to say that a children's yoga class is a free-for-all. But engaging children's imagination helps keep their attention, says Teddy Kellam of San Francisco-based Yogadoodles. "Their lives are in motion, so the yoga is a lot more dynamic," Kellam says. "You don't do a lot of static poses, and you always enrich the poses with sound."
It's also one of the most basic ways to plant the seeds of yogic philosophy, adds Kellam. "Imagination cultivates empathy. That's one of the ways children's yoga really is yoga in a very deep way."
Kathy Wheet agrees. Wheet, a kindergarten teacher who runs a children's yoga camp for the Phoenix, Arizona-based studio Yoga Pura, says she uses storybooks that may not be specifically geared toward yoga to gently teach the eight yogic limbs. Sometimes Wheet uses one about a boy who happens upon an ant. As the boy is about to crush the ant, the bug pleads for his life, and the two engage in a conversation. At the end, the choice—whether or not to kill—is left up to the reader. "It's a great way to talk about ahimsa, non-harming, and to get them to be aware," Wheet explains.
She also uses a book called Hello, Red Fox, by Eric Carle, to teach youngsters to use a soft drishti, or gaze. "The idea of that book is the kinds of visual games people play with you. You stare hard at one page, then flip to the next and the image remains—even though it's only in your mind." Wheet's students learn to access a soft quality of focus in class.
It's all part of what children's yoga teacher Marsha Wenig calls the "yoga bling-bling"—toys and props such as instruments, feathers, or even Beanie Baby dolls, which are made in a variety of animal shapes that can be linked to yoga poses.
Wenig, who founded YogaKids International, has a background in Iyengar Yoga, with its strong focus on alignment. Once she started working with kids, she says she found she had to let go of some of her ideas about the preciseness of yoga. "I was a yoga purist. [But] then I allowed the children to kind of instruct me on how they learn," she says. "The kids love to make up yoga poses. [New teachers] need to get into their Zen mind, their beginners' mind. Let go of what you know and be present with the kids, because they really are giving us clues."
Kellam suggests prompting kids to explore with creative transitions between poses. "Kids crave connections to nature...they love to be small seeds in child's pose, waiting for the warm spring to come. You can have a water spritzer, and they can grow up into their own kind of plant or into a tree pose. Then you can ask them questions: What kind of tree are you? What's on your branches?"
That doesn't mean that classes don't have structure. As Wenig puts it, "You need to have a large energetic field—not be a dictator, but really know your stuff."
There's some controversy about whether to use pranayama, or breathing techniques, with young yogis. Kellam has students use big breaths to blow a feather across the floor to develop deep belly breathing. Wenig emphasizes that kids shouldn't be asked to hold the breath, but that developing breath awareness can be a gentle introduction to the world of pranayama.
If you want to start teaching kids yoga, it may help to take part in a special teacher training. Such programs attract seasoned yoga teachers, as well as social workers or teachers like Wheet who want to find a way to bring yoga into their daily work with kids. Wenig believes that this may be where kids' yoga will find its firmest toehold in this country, as people who work with youngsters learn to incorporate a bit of yoga between classes, during group counseling, or at the end of a session on the playground to help kids focus and connect with their bodies.
In an official program, trainers will tell you it's essential not to sacrifice safety. Although it's best not to rigidly correct alignment in budding yogis, it may be best not to use such poses as Shoulderstand or Headstand while young necks are still developing. And—along with offering loads of suggestions for fun sequencing—trainers will teach you how to gauge when more challenging poses might be appropriate for students.
You'll also hear gems like this one from Kellam, who encourages lots of singing in her classes, both to incorporate deeper breathing and to keep the mood in the room peaceful. "They hear admonishments and commands all day. If you can sing instead, their brain receives it in a totally different way. Yoga can be a refuge for them."