What’s Up Dog? The playfulness of children’s yoga

Any yogi may be familiar with Warrior III, a pose with one leg grounded on the earth, the other extending behind, and arms reaching forward.

But in Michelle Newman’s yoga classes, the pose magically turns into a giraffe, lunging for leaves, in a pure expression of expansion.

Newman, who leads children’s yoga classes throughout the county, joyfully creates a menagerie of creatures who leap, lunge, and lengthen.

As she ignites the imagination of the children in her classes, she takes them through the familiar classical sequences their parents may practice. The result is the same: an attention to breath, employing meditation to find a sense of calm, and the delight in stretching their limbs.

“Yoga is unlike any other form of exercise, which is why I’m so passionate about it and want to share it with kids,” says Newman. “It teaches kids to respect and honor themselves and others, to create mindfulness and balance.”

Newman starts her classes with centering exercises, giving children the tools to concentrate and sit still. Sometimes they practice gazing at a candle flame, other times they watch the arm of a metronome.

She follows with pranayama or breath work, instructing children to pay attention to their breath as it fills their bellies and then empties.

Newman says that cultivating an ability to be still is a skill many children struggle with, but that they so desperately need.

“Once they learn they can create peace within themselves, that skill is always with them,” she says.

Lisa Loiseau, teacher and owner of Core Wellness in Landisville, agrees.

“The more I learned about yoga with kids, I thought what a wonderful gift for children to learn the tools for being still,” she says. “We’re able to teach them it’s okay to have the feelings they have, it’s okay not being okay with things. These are ideas I didn’t learn until I was in my 30s.”

Developing meditation and breathing techniques are important, but children’s yoga teachers say their classes wouldn’t be successful if they weren’t playful.

“When teaching yoga to kids it is important to keep it interactive and fun,” says teacher Amanda McFerren. “I teach yoga to kiddos by relating the poses to things they already know. Airplane, Tree, Bridge, Wheel, Table, Cat, etc are all good places to start with kids as they are able to relate to these poses because they are familiar with the counterparts in their world.”

Newman often structures her class around a story.

“Sometimes we go on a safari to Africa, sometimes we climb the Himalayas,” says Newman, who will be actually traveling to Nairobi next year to help teach yoga to children as part of the Africa Yoga Project program.

Newman as employs storybooks in her classes, reading a page, then acting out parts of the story through yoga movements. She says this is most successful at holding the attention of the youngest children, as older children more readily follow an imagined story.

Loiseau likes bringing the playfulness of teaching kids yoga into her teaching to adults.

“I have found that we forget how to play,” she says. “I like helping adults remember to have more fun.”

Newman says including the entire family into the yoga practice creates a greater element of playfulness, allowing parents to growl and bark in Dog Pose right along with their children.“I think it’s a great way to bring families together,” says Newman. “Families can enjoy doing the poses together and it’s a great way to bond and bring connection and be in the present moment.”

When a whole family practices together, McFerren enjoys the possibilities to create dynamic group poses.“It is fun with family yoga to involve Acro Yoga poses that allow the parents and kids to play together,” she says. “The child can fly like an airplane off of Mom or Dad’s feet. The parent can become a table and kiddo can do cat and cow on their back. Wheel is fun for crawling under.”

Newman says the key to teaching yoga to children is to inspire them with playfulness as well as to model mindfulness.“They learn there’s a time to be silly, and also a time to be still and quiet,” she says. “It is a skill we all need to learn at some point in our lives.”

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