Sunday, January 17, 2010

Get your Om on

Children's yoga: Don't expect calm and serene

Imagine you're on a boat gliding through a jungle on a quest for lost treasure ... then a frog hops by ...

Kindergartners and first-graders start croaking, squatting and leaping onto yoga mats that they imagine are lily pads, having fun doing yoga asanas (poses).

As my work contribution at the Juneau Community Charter School, I created a kids yoga class. I merged my gymnastics coaching experience with my yoga studies and an armful of books on kids yoga to come up with the curriculum.

Rainforest Yoga instructor Jenny Strumfeld, who moved out of Juneau last year, had been the only one teaching kids yoga in Juneau until recently.

Ashtanga yoga instructor Jodee Goldsferry, of Juneau, began teaching kids yoga in September, completing a six-week class series at downtown's Raven Yoga Shala. She has found it very rewarding and also challenging.

"You need to control the excitement in the room, keep them engaged and not let them get too excited," said Goldsferry, who likes to make sure her students have fun and "still provide an actual yoga class where we talk like real people, do breath work and even learn Sanskrit words."

Yoga is a Sanskrit word derived from the root "yuj," which means union, usually referring to the body, mind and spirit. Yoga has its roots in India, and it's widely accepted that the goal is radiant health, a blissed-out feeling.

Kids yoga sessions are generally not blissful. Unlike organized adult classes, kids thrive when there is room for playful self-discovery, within a structured environment. Childrens' self esteem is boosted with learning.

"They get so excited when they do something for the first time, they say to their parents proudly 'Look what I can do!'" Goldsferry said. "They are able to adapt so quickly doing things on the second or third try that would take adults months to learn."

Ideally, a yoga session will include a sequence of centering, bends, twists, balancing, strength, inversions and rest. Like wringing out a wet towel, yoga should rejuvenate and release having stretched out the entire body, restored the breath and released stagnant energy. Concentration should improve, alertness and self-awareness.

Kids are learning about physical boundaries and yoga mats, with their colorful and clearly defined boundaries, are an effective way to define personal space. Personal space helps dismiss distractions so the child's creative energy can be focused. (Unlike adult classes, I also have them do partner and group poses to help them work together as a team to produce a result.)

Former Rainforest Yoga instructor Gretchen Anne Harrington, whose daughter was in Goldsferry's class, also thinks yoga prepares kids for sports.

"It always amazes me how quickly kids pick up yoga poses and how much they enjoy the challenge of balance, coordination and concentration," she said. "Yoga prepares them to excel in any physical activity. And, where else do they get to roar like a lion, slither like a snake, or relax like a starfish?"

Taproot Yoga owner Malia McInery will offer two kids yoga series toward the end of January.

"Kids - they are already malleable and buoyant so the benefits (of yoga) really lie in stimulating their brains, finding new ways to inhabit themselves, interact with other kids and incorporate a meaningful ritual into their life ... all things that inspire confidence and creativity," she said.

Raven Yoga Shala owner Stephanie Quigley let the charter school's K1 class use her yoga studio in the Arcticorp building downtown because she likes the energy the class brings to the room.

"For children, yoga is a way of playing," she said. "They have a treasure of curiosity about the yoga postures and explore the movements naturally with an eager and open mind. Kids are intuitively yogis."

Quigley also believes "kids seem to play with yoga in a way many adults wish they could. The end result for children's yoga is perhaps the same as an adults, and that is: calming or centering the mind, body and breath awareness: coordination, muscular strength, and natural energy."

In teaching children's yoga, which increases muscle tone, spatial awareness, circulation, imagination and self-discovery, I've found it is helpful to engage the students' imaginations. You are now riding on a camel in a desert ...

• Courtney Nelson can be reached at

1 comment:

Young Yoga Masters said...

This is a great account of what kids yoga is really like!

Kids also seem to apply what they learn more easily. The adults I teach say things like, "I've been waiting for yoga all week."

The kids don't wait, they'll just start doing what they've learned on their own, in the playground, classroom, or at home.

That's one of the cool things about kids - they just do it.