Preschoolers, the Youngest Yogis

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 9, 2013

A dozen toddlers bend their bodies into intricate poses, bark like dogs through fits of giggles, and finally lie down on small mats for a few minutes of peace and quiet.

Just a typical day at yoga class for the preschool set.

“I love the downward dog because it’s really funny!” said 4-year-old Elly Cicha of Cherry Hill.

If you think Elly is young to undertake the thousands-year-old Indian practice, consider Anabel Silver, who started in utero. The Center City fifth-grader claims the crow as her favorite pose, and with 11 years of yoga under her belt, she’s found that the discipline aids her in other ways: “Yoga helps with things that trouble you.”

When another girl from school wasn’t nice to her on a camping trip, “At night I tried to stay calm, and I would count and listen to my breathing and that would really help calm myself down,” Anabel said. “It helped center my mind and helped me feel better about it.”

More children are striking poses as yoga – now very much a mainstream activity – is included in school gym curriculums as a Wii game, and even as a requirement for a Girl Scout patch. A national push to fight childhood obesity and a search by many parents for less competitive, noncontact physical activities has translated into more yoga studios catering to increased demand with more class offerings and bigger class sizes. From baby yoga through high school, every age group can practice with classes incorporating music, story time, and role-playing.

“There is more pressure on kids in school to succeed and participate in a lot of things, and yoga is a good way for them to center and calm down,” said Mark Nelson, owner of the Yoga Garden in Narberth, which opened a second location on South Street in September. “In the three years since we’ve owned the Narberth location, class sizes have doubled, and in some cases went from four-person classes to eight, 10, and even 20 kids.” Classes with the most growth, Nelson said, are those for the youngest students.

Sharlene McKinley opened Cerca Trova Yoga in Havertown in 2010, and has witnessed steady growth with classes for younger kids. She’s also putting effort into growing the teen market. “People are seeing the healthy outcome of a yoga practice. . . . As kids see more adults embracing yoga, it becomes the cultural norm.”

Yoga, which means “join” or “unite” in Sanskrit, is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline that originated in India. And although there are many and sometimes trendy variations on the ancient practice – iyengar, kundalini, bikram – all yoga focuses on breathing and mindfulness through poses, some of which kids do naturally.

“Yoga is great for kids on many different levels – physical, mental, and spiritual,” said Jana Cicha, who teaches preschool yoga classes in Evesham Township. “Yoga helps them focus on how they are feeling and what they are feeling, and helps them find that inner quiet.”

Typically, a preschool yoga class begins with running around, explained Gail Silver, founder of Yoga Child in Center City. She started her company in 2001 to train teachers to bring a yoga and mindfulness curriculum to schools.

“For younger kids, as young as 2, we try to keep the yoga playful and animated,” said Silver. “Often we’ll build our yoga around music and storybooks.”

Through “magical meditations,” kids practice blowing out pretend candles on a birthday cake to understand breathing techniques and discuss whether breathing from their bellies or chest feels more calming. They then journey to a special place, such as the moon or a forest, learning yoga poses that carry them on their tour.

As the class winds down, so does the activity. Through a game or song, children are prepared for the eventual savasana, or corpse pose, which, unsurprisingly, involves lying down. That’s when children “really get a chance to let the benefits of the practice sink in and to learn how to lie still,” Silver said. “For many children that takes time, but it becomes one of the most enjoyable parts of the practice.”

Laura Maron, who teaches yoga for all age groups in several South Jersey locations, sees benefits at every age. “For babies, it’s all about body awareness, and I’ve had babies roll over for the first time in Mommy and Me yoga class,” she said. “Elementary-school kids are already flexible, so it’s more about focus. Middle-school kids learn to take a deep breath and not react right away to things, and for teenagers, it’s about flexibility and focus.”

Kevin McKeever, 17, tried yoga when he was 12, and has practiced ever since. “I really like the movement part and the way it makes me feel,” said the Shipley School senior. An athlete in basketball, soccer, and baseball, he said “yoga helps me in all my sports in flexibility, and I find when I do yoga regularly, I’m much more energized and am better able to stay alert and awake.”

Yoga is a great physical activity for kids, assuming they are supervised with a trained instructor and well-hydrated, said Jennifer Naticchia, of Virtua Sports and Family Medicine. “Yoga is good for our physical health and mental health, and stretching and flexibility will prevent falls as you get older.”

Beyond physical concerns, some parents resist enrolling their children because they don’t understand the terminology: Chakras refer to physical areas of the body, asanas are postures, and pranayama is breath control.

“People say you’re chanting and saying religious things,” said Cicha. “There is no religion called yoga and no religious meaning behind the things you are doing in yoga. It’s literally a union between your mind and your body.”

Silver believes that children gain the most from yoga when combining the practice with mindfulness. “When kids are on the mat stretching their bodies and paying attention to their breathing, it’s a prime opportunity to help them understand how they’re feeling – what does and doesn’t feel good to them.”

For homework, kids draw on these lessons, for example, by thinking about a situation and creating a picture or writing out what happened.

“We’ll ask them when they feel angry to try to practice volcano pose or try to sit with their anger or breathe with their anger,” Silver said. “It’s where you get to see the kids learning these practices at such a young age, when they are ripe for learning.”

For Elly Cicha, that’s lower on her priority list. “I like the running around part of yoga, I like the breathing, and I like being with my friends.”

Terri Akman For The Inquirer

Our South Philly yoga studio offers Vinyasa Yoga, Power Yoga, Beginner’s Yoga, Meditation and Yoga Teacher Training to the South Philadelphia neighborhoods of Bella Vista & Queen Village (19147), Grays Ferry & Point Breeze (19146), and Center City & Washington Square (19107). Our Mainline yoga studio serves Narberth (19072), Ardmore (19003), Bryn Mawr (19010), Wynnewood (19096), Havertown (19083), Bala Cynwyd (19004), Merion (19066) & Gladwyne (19035).