Giggles + Gomukhasana: Teaching Parent-Baby Yoga Classes

Parent-baby yoga classes are much more than fun and games. Focus your asana sequences and help new families bond and grow together.
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Parent-baby yoga classes are much more than fun and games. Focus your asana sequences and help new families bond and grow together.
mother and child, sunset

Parent-baby yoga classes are much more than fun and games. Focus your asana sequences and help new families bond and grow together.

In a state of sheer bliss, Max tries to leap from his mother's arms. Normally quiet and shy, this 10-month-old New Yorker squeals with joy whenever he goes to the neighborhood yoga studio where parents and babies practice together. He claps when he sees the bright toys that fill his classroom and coos as he settles onto his soft blanket.

"Max can't wait to play, chant, and sing," says his mother, Tara Weiss Bronstein. "And I look forward to it, too. Just as he's improving his coordination through yoga practice, I'm using it to physically recover from pregnancy and delivery. And just as he loves greeting the other babies, I'm excited to see the other parents, some of whom have become my close friends."

If you'd like to teach parent-baby yoga, you'll find plenty of students who are just as exuberant about it as Max, his mom, and their friends. In order to help these students get the most out of class, you need to be able to meet their needs by offering them a unique type of yoga that is focused and specialized, but also flexible and playful.

Play with a Purpose

New parents are often exhausted from hauling heavy strollers and nursing sleepless infants to bed at 3 a.m. Babies get fussy and have their bad days, too. One aim of parent-baby yoga is to help them both let go a little.

"Your job as an instructor is to make each class fun," says Helen Garabedian, the Sudbury, Massachusetts-based founder of Itsy Bitsy Yoga. "That's reflected in the exercises you do, and in the way you approach them."As babies burp and burble—and as parents take spontaneous, individualized breaks to breastfeed and change diapers—the best parent-baby yoga teachers offer support by keeping their instruction loose and flexible.

Though parent-baby yoga classes have a serious aim—helping adults stretch stiff bodies and helping babies boost their physical strength and skills—these classes are full of gurgling joy. Parents hold themselves in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) while bouncing their babies on their lifted bellies. They suspend themselves in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) while nuzzling infants' noses. There are stuffed animals and sing-alongs and tummy tickles and toe massages. This element of lila (divine play) benefits students of all ages. When you help parents and babies learn to exhale and play together, they'll forge a stronger parent-child bond, which is another key goal of this type of yoga.

"Encourage steady eye contact between adults and infants," advises Mary Barnes, who teaches Yoga for Two at Pure Yoga in New York City. A mom might place the baby between her hands in Down Dog, come into Plank Pose, then come back into Down Dog, gazing at her baby the whole time—or even doing poses one-handed and resting the free hand on the baby's belly. Participants also bond by doing "baby yoga," where the parent stretches the baby's body in various poses such as Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose) or a mini Down Dog.

Pioneering teachers have developed their own specific class formats to reflect this balance of play and purpose, so you can feel free to create your own format. A 30-minute class can include 10 minutes of baby yoga, 10 minutes of parent-baby yoga, 5 minutes of play time, and 5 minutes of centering or relaxation. A 90-minute class can give you more time for adult yoga (with babies watching from blankets on the floor) and still include 20 minutes of baby yoga, 20 minutes of parent-baby yoga, and 5 minutes of centering or relaxation. Classes may follow a set sequence of asanas—Sun Salutations followed by backbends, forward bends, inversions, then twists—or hone in on different parts of the body, working the abs, hips, shoulders, then back. But whatever format you choose, it should be subject to change.

As a parent-baby yoga instructor, try to fit in all the poses and work you'd like to do. But if an infant starts fussing and then a chorus of wailing babies join in, learn to just laugh it off. If it's not working, save it for next time. To prevent the aforementioned fussing and keep everybody relaxed, however, teachers try to assure parents that they don't have to be "on" or "do" anything. Experienced instructors remind their students of this and then embody that open attitude. "If a baby cries out during meditation, reassure his anxious mother that this is not only OK, but good. Remind her that she waited nine months to hear his first sounds—and how happy she'll be when those sounds turn into words," says Garabedian.

Whether you end class with quiet centering or with babies all squealing in happy unison, schedule at least 15 minutes afterward for students to chat and socialize. "When a new mother takes one of these classes, it can introduce her to a parenting community for the first time," says Jyothi Larson, the author of Yoga Mom, Buddha Baby and a postpartum instructor at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City. "Creating that support system is vital. Women I know are still friends with other moms whom they met in my classes a decade ago, and their children continue to play together to this day."

Specialize Your Knowledge

Proponents of parent-baby yoga say it's a growing trend; they've seen their classes and training course numbers increase over the last few years. There are hundreds of Itsy Bitsy Yoga and Radiant Child Yoga instructors offering classes all over the U.S. And there's also a small army of grassroots instructors such as Helen Garabedian and Jyothi Larson, training parent-baby teachers who then go out and create their own classes. Because outwardly it looks like mostly fun and games, some instructors make the mistake of thinking they can effectively teach these classes without prior experience and without doing more preparation than reading a few books on infant yoga. Veteran instructors caution that this could endanger students who come to these classes—both the parents, who are usually first-time mothers, and the babies, who are usually less than a year old and haven't started crawling yet.

"To offer this type of yoga and do it right, you need to know how to teach specific poses, like wrist stretches that relieve the carpal tunnel syndrome that parents get from carrying babies around all day," says Julia Mannes, a parent-baby yoga instructor at New York City's Life in Motion. "You need to know how to take precautions, such as holding babies so you support their necks, because they aren't strong enough to lift their heads on their own until they are three to six months old."

If you feel drawn to working with new families, do a little research into training programs in your area. Parent-baby yoga training usually requires that you already have a basic 200-hour certification to teach regular yoga. On top of this, your parent-baby training can cover fundamentals in 20 to 40 hours of course time. To find a course near you, reach out to prenatal and postpartum teachers in your area, or consider programs such as Itsy Bitsy Yoga and Radiant Child Yoga, which offer satellite courses all over the United States.

In your training, you'll learn techniques like correcting diastasis recti (separation of the left and right side of the rectus abdominis muscle, which often happens during pregnancy) by having mothers hug their belly buttons into their spines as they do poses that help rebuild abdominal muscles: Marjaryasana (Cat Pose), Bitilasana (Cow Pose), and Navasana (Full-Boat Pose). Along with these special exercises, you'll learn skills such as how to teach mixed-level classes—necessary because parent-baby yoga attracts adults who have practiced asanas for decades as well as beginners who don't know Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) from Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Pranayama, if done, is just for the parents, as the babies aren't old enough to do breathing exercises yet. Parents might lie on their backs, rest their babies on their bellies, and do belly breaths while lifting the baby up and down. To strengthen abdominal muscles that are weak from childbearing, mothers might do Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath) while in Boat Pose. Meditation is included on days when the babies are quieter. Parents will typically meditate at the end of class while holding their babies in their laps or resting them on their backs on blankets on the floor.

Just as you'll learn poses tailored to new parents, you'll also learn exercises specially designed for babies. One example is a variation of Pavanmuktasana (Wind-Relieving Pose), where you guide an infant's knees toward his chest to aid his digestion. Another is a "cross-patterning" exercise in which you draw a baby's right hand toward her left knee (and her left hand toward her right knee) to help her develop the motor coordination that she will later use to crawl.

When you've mastered these basics and understand postpartum recovery and the basics of infant development, you'll be ready to teach—or even launch—classes at a yoga studio or community center near you.