September 19, 2013

So You Teach Yoga to Kids? ~ Ria Cooper

Photo Courtesy Axel Bührmann

You Teach Yoga to Kids? Yup. I do.

The response is often “Cool,” or “Wow,” or maybe even “Huh, that’s weird,”…but what usually happens is that most people—and I mean almost everyone I’ve ever talked to about this—follows up with “Wow. That’s great. I wish I’d taken yoga as a kid.”

Yoga is exploding in popularity across the United States (Last December, Yoga Journal posted the results of the 2012 Yoga In America study, indicating that more than 20 million people in the United States practice yoga). So why is the idea of yoga for kids still so surprising?

Now, let’s not get carried away. I live in Brooklyn. Pretty much everyone I know does yoga regularly, or has tried some sort of yoga at some point and there are lots of kinds of yoga to try in New York. They usually have first-hand experience of how good they felt or feel after savasana, and then they imagine how they might have turned out differently if they had done yoga as a kid instead of gymnastics, or being on the baseball team, or being forced by their parents to practice the saxophone. They imagine a more peaceful universe, inhabited by stress-free individuals. (I remember last year the Dalai Lama was quoted as having said: “If every eight-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence in one generation.”)

These days it’s quite common for New York City kids to do yoga, whether in after-school programs, or in classes at a studio, or even private sessions in their homes (I’ve taught yoga to kids in all of these places, and more). So why are these NYC kids doing yoga? For all the same reasons adults do yoga: increased flexibility. Lower stress levels. Better overall quality of life. Okay, that and their parents think it will be good for them. The kids aren’t necessarily thinking about flexibility or lower stress or quality of life when they come into the studio for a class; they’re thinking about whether or not they’ll get to sit on their favorite color triangle of the play parachute, or they’re thinking about where we’ll go on our imaginary yoga adventure.

Over the past few years I’ve taught kids who get super excited about the imaginary yoga adventure we go on in class. “Can we go to the zoo today, Ria?” Or “When we go on our adventure today, let’s go to the rainforest and see all the animals!”

I’ve worked with kids who realize they are able to do something they never even knew was possible—folding up into lotus pose, or balancing in crow pose, for example—and their excitement levels go through the roof. Suddenly they’re more confident, sure of themselves. I get a lot of high fives.

After teaching various pranayama (breath work) practices, I’ve heard kids tell their parents after class that today they learned how to breathe. Direct quote: One four-year-old student’s mom asked “How was yoga today?” and she answered, “Mom, I was breathing and my mind opened up!”

In teaching kids’ yoga, I’ve talked about what Namaste means, and talked about the idea of an “inner light” with a six-year-old who put his hands on his heart and said: “Ria, you know how when you touch a light bulb, it’s hot? That’s how my heart feels after yoga.” (Swoon.)

I’ve also taught kids who pitch a fit that there aren’t any mats left in their favorite color and so they self-exile and stand in the corner for 45 minutes. Let’s be honest, here: sometimes grown-ups take yoga classes that make them feel like this too. (Less visible pouting, maybe.)

“Wow, kids must be really good at yoga, right? They’re so flexible!” I hear this often. Sure, some kids are flexible. Some of them aren’t. I’ve seen students float up into tolasana without batting an eye while others struggle to touch their toes, just as I’ve seen this kind of thing in grownups’ classes, too.

Some of the kids I work with are extremely competitive, some aren’t. Just like adults. For the last few years I’ve been teaching yoga to a pair of twin boys—they’ve just turned seven—who are extremely competitive with each other. Occasionally I struggle in addressing this with them; no matter how much I tell them that their bodies are different and that they simply will have different abilities because they are different people, they still want to be the best. At everything.

They holler “I did it better than he did!” or “His knee wasn’t straight!” In the meantime I try to let go of the notion that doing yoga with me once a week will somehow speed them on the path to deep self-inquiry and enlightenment. I consider it a tiny achievement when one of the boys measures his success in a pose against what it was like last week, as opposed to what his brother is doing. Last week, while practicing janu srsasana, one brother was shouting “I can grab my toe! I can grab my toe!” while the other shrugged and just kept reaching for his own toes. An excellent day.

There are similarities, of course, but I’m not suggesting that kids are simply tiny adults. Having taught both adults and kids, my (entirely anecdotal) experience indicates that they have different needs and attention spans, and the reasons they’re doing yoga in the first place are different. I am suggesting that we review the things that make us feel good—and take into account that they are good for young people as well. Considering all the studies that have indicated the vast benefits of yoga:

The Mayo clinic

American Osteopathic Association

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

The Encinitas school yoga court case

I believe it’s imperative to start bringing more yoga to more children and young people. Kids aren’t just smaller adults and they eventually grow up. In the case of my students, they won’t have to imagine what it would have been like to do yoga as kids; they’ll already know.

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Assistant Ed: Judith Andersson / Ed: Sara Crolick


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