Nine-month-old Bryce Saunders giggled, legs dangling, as his mom held him in what was meant to be a soothing yoga pose. Then, with one hand clutching Bryce's bottom and the other wrapped around his stomach, she bent her knees and dropped down quickly into a squat.
"Am I holding him right?" Christine Saunders asked, as she stood back up.
Bryce squinted his eyes and began to fuss.
"Yes . . . and he doesn't want you to stop," said instructor Moira Clarkin.
Saunders and son's lesson in Divine Drops, as the move is called, took place in an Itsy Bitsy Yoga class, open to children from 3 weeks to 2 years of age, at Boundless Yoga Studio on U Street NW. There, babies and toddlers -- with a sometimes-considerable adult assist -- practice yoga poses along with their caregivers. The poses, including "Kicky Cobra" and "Down Dog," are based on a program developed by Massachusetts yoga instructor Helen Garabedian. The author of "Itsy Bitsy Yoga: Poses to Help Your Baby Sleep Longer, Digest Better and Grow Stronger" (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2004), Garabedian claims yoga reduces babies' stress and anxiety.
In a switch from traditional "mom and baby" postpartum yoga classes, which emphasize the mother's yoga practice and incorporate the baby only passively, the new concept involves more than 75 poses focused strictly on the baby's movement, soothing and enjoyment. Caregivers act as helpers, guiding the babies' arms and legs into poses and, at times, holding and bouncing the children, as Saunders did.
Some fitness-conscious parents are flocking to these classes, hoping an unusually early introduction to formalized movement will help keep their tots from becoming obesity statistics. About 15 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight in 1999-2000, compared with 11.3 percent in 1988-94, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children 12 to 19 showed a similar trend, with 15.5 percent overweight in 1999-2000, compared with 10.5 percent in the earlier period.
"My mantra is: Fit baby equals fit toddler equals fit child equals fit teen equals fit adult," said Garabedian, who started her program five years ago. "Children who are exposed to age-appropriate exercise at an early age are more apt to continue that."
Mary Wilcox is a believer. "I definitely want my kids to be active," said the Falls Church resident who took her 9-month-old son, Liam Timar-Wilcox, to Clarkin's class in March and April. "I wanted to do something with him, and have him do the exercises and get the benefits from it."
But pediatricians are generally skeptical of the benefits some parents ascribe to baby and toddler yoga classes, saying that no studies have examined their effects. Eric Small, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Sports Medicine and author of "Kids & Sports" (Newmarket Press, 2002) advised that parents shouldn't expect that enrolling their tykes in baby yoga classes will better their health.
"It's just an activity for them to do," Small said in an interview. "But having quality interaction with a babysitter or a parent is probably equally as beneficial as attending a yoga class."
In a later e-mail, he addressed the obesity question: "There are genetic, nutritional [and] exercise factors that contribute [to excess weight]. Doing baby yoga in and of itself will not prevent childhood obesity. The baby has . . . [to] eat healthy and play and be active on a daily basis."
And then there's the safety question.
Small said he worries that some baby yoga instructors lack training in infant development and knowledge of health problems that could make exercise risky. One such problem, he said, is hypotonia, a condition involving muscle weakness and poor head and leg control that is often not diagnosed until 6 months of age. Hypotonia affects one to five percent of children, Small said.
"Infants and toddlers are generally very flexible in joints and muscles," Small wrote. "They have soft bones at their growth plates. With overstretching, there is a potential to cause a growth plate fracture. . . . Infants and toddlers cannot verbalize if the stretch is uncomfortable as older children and adults can."
But Garabedian said babies can and do let others know when a pose hurts or pleases. She said instructors' training covers cues that babies like or dislike an activity, and instructors then teach parents to recognize these signs. If caregivers or instructors notice babies showing signs of discomfort, they're supposed to stop the activity, she said.
Signs of engagement, or happiness with an activity, Garabedian said, include cooing, giggling and making eye contact. Cues signaling disengagement, or frustration or pain with a pose, she said, include crying, turning their heads away and arching their backs.
In the training she provides, she said, "I also teach the facilitators a lot about the baby's anatomy."
Garabedian took a 200-plus hour course to earn certification as an "infant development movement educator" from the School for Body-Mind Centering in Massachusetts; among the school's other offerings is a 500-hour somatic movement education program, which requires students to explore the relationship between the body, mind, movement and touch. Garabedian, who started practicing yoga when she was 10, also says she is certified in Hatha yoga, yoga pregnancy teaching and in infant massage.
She said she started her exercise program to combine her love for yoga with an activity she could use to bond with her children. (Her first child, Andrew, was born last month.) Garabedian said she's never taught the kind of mother-and-baby class in which both exercise together. "I believe that a mom's yoga practice should be separate from the baby's because yoga is almost like an inner experience."
She says she has trained some 60 instructors, including two from the Washington area: Clarkin and Sharon Stevenson, who teaches at various locations in Northern Virginia. She requires five days of instruction for those planning to teach her trademarked Itsy Bitsy Yoga to children up to age 2 and two days for those working with kids aged 2 to 4. Garabedian said she addresses how to safely work with infants' and toddlers' growing bodies.
"I think that training is very, very important . . . to make [instructors] understand how slow they need to go" with infants and toddlers, said Garabedian. "Their spine is totally different. . . . There is really a lot that we have to do to . . . work with infants and babies successfully."
What Comes Naturally
In Itsy Bitsy Yoga, caregivers help kids learn poses by gently positioning them and moving their arms and legs. But instructors said some kids spontaneously put themselves into facsimiles of adult yoga poses such as "Downward Facing Dog," where they bend over with their feet and hands planted on the ground -- creating an upside-down V -- even before taking classes.
"When I had my son, I was just so struck by how naturally yoga came to him," said Clarkin, whose son, Benjamin Evans, is 11 months old. "I could see that he was doing poses, and I could see some of the benefits."
One of those benefits is a calming effect on young yogis, say parents and instructors. That proved useful a few weeks ago, said Wilcox, when her son got cranky during a flight with her from Minneapolis.
"I laid him down on the seat and did yoga and he got very happy," Wilcox said. "There's a bouncing one where you bounce them on your knee, called 'Hop Along Yogi.' He loves that. . . . He smiles and starts kicking his feet."
Christine Saunders had hoped that she and son would learn relaxation techniques from the introductory class conducted by Clarkin. But Bryce was fussy throughout the session, except during poses like Divine Drops that involved bouncing and movement. His mom attributes that to his being older than the four other babies in the class, who ranged from 8 weeks to 5 months old.
"Bryce . . . is at an age where he doesn't relax very well," she said. "I think that this would be good for him maybe when he's a little bit older."