“It tickled my face,” answered one girl. The student next to her pointed to her loose tooth. “I felt it everywhere,” said another. And with that mind-body connection reminder, it was time to strike a pose.
Watching the wee ones stand on one leg and twist their arms to maneuver into eagle, I realized the most remarkable thing about this scene was that it wasn’t that remarkable. These children are part of the yoga generation, a cohort of kids who beg for downward-facing dogs. Whether or not their parents practice, they’re exposed to it through TV, friends and school.
Classes for moms with newborns have become standard at most studios, and a growing number have opportunities for kids of all ages to practice. Another recent phenomenon: the yoga birthday party.
These forces are partially why the local nonprofit organization YoKid, which offers free and low-cost classes for ages 4 to 18, has seen demand skyrocket since the program launched four years ago. So far, the group has partnered with 50 schools and community centers, and has worked with thousands of children. Feedback has been universally positive from parents and teachers who like seeing students calmer and exhibiting self-control, says co-founder Michelle Kelsey Mitchell. But the more critical goal is giving kids tools for a lifetime.
“Yoga is one of those things you can take with you anywhere you go,” says Mitchell, who believes these lessons have the potential to solve the obesity crisis by teaching all kids the importance of keeping active. “You’re not good at it or bad at it. You’re just doing it.”
And you can do it from an astonishingly early age, says Debra Perlson-Mishalove, who owns Flow Yoga Center near Logan Circle. Her 2-year-old son, Jonah, has been a yogi since birth (and if you count in utero, then even earlier). As a newborn, he was a more passive participant, just getting the benefits of infant massage and seeing his mom model healthy behavior. But these days in his Itsy Bitsy Yoga class, he has the posing down and is even starting to tap into other lessons.
“To have my son know that when he needs a little timeout to take a breath is incredible,” she says. “I wish I knew that at his age.”
It’s the kind of knowledge that’s apparently being spread at the playground. D.C. resident Stephanie Donne, 45, introduced both her sons to yoga as babies, but she was still amazed to hear from her 6-year-old’s schoolteacher that he’d been offering up yogic wisdom to classmates. “One day a kid was upset, and Eli said, ‘You can om. I’ll show you how,’ ” she says.
I’m guessing the expression on the teacher’s face that day was a lot like mine when I asked kids at Budding Yogis why they like coming to class. “I love how I can get my energy out in a calming way. It’s very relaxing and mindful,” 7-year-old Ella Farr told me. I paused and asked, “So, Ella, what does the word ‘mindful’ mean to you?” She responded probably better than I could have: “It’s like when I eat a strawberry mindfully, I really recognize the taste of strawberry.”
Because most adults who do yoga didn’t start until college or beyond, we don’t yet know what it means to be raising children with this much knowledge of awareness, meditation and breath work. “We look at each other and wonder what is going to happen to these kids,” says Pleasance Silicki, the founder of Lil Omm, a yoga studio in the Palisades that opened last year to cater to families.
But one might suspect that the children will approach yoga more joyfully than people who come to it later in life. “When you’re a kid, you’re playing, not practicing,” says Perlson-Mishalove. So Jonah knows mountain pose is standing up straight, but he prefers it when they then get to shake and erupt into “volcano” pose. (Good luck finding that one in an adult class.)
Budding Yogis’ Feldman starts the 2- to 4-year-olds in the Movers & Twisters class on sun salutations by playing a game where they reach up to the sky, grab the sun and pull its heat to the ground. When they graduate into the class for 5- to 8-year-olds, they learn the whole sequence by doing each pose to the beat of a drum that they take turns pounding, for an extra lesson in patience and sharing.
There are songs, stories and silliness, but never any talk of body alignment. “Kids are perfect the way they are,” Feldman says.
And maybe with yoga in their lives, they’ll stay that way.
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