Children Grow, Connect and Heal Through Yoga
From sweating through a 90-degree Bikram studio to focusing on mindfulness in a Kripalu practice, there is no shortage of yoga options at studios in the Chicago area. Most of these classes are structured for adults, however, and would be difficult for a seven-year-old with a shorter attention span or a four-year-old who’s still developing learning skills. Recognizing this, many places now offer yoga for a younger crowd, and children as young as preschoolers are taking advantage.
Lisa Faremouth Weber opened Heaven Meets Earth Yoga in the middle of a residential Evanston neighborhood specifically so it would be accessible to people of all ages. The family yoga studio offers classes for everyone, starting with prenatal courses and moving through classes for parent and child, ages 4 through 7, 8 through 12, teens and adults. The studio also conducts specialty off-site youth programs at schools and Girl Scout troops, and works with young athletes and college-aged rape victims. Weber says having an opportunity to restore and connect with the self is vital for children.
“The children being born today are highly sensitive and easily can get over-stimulated,” she says. “They can’t function in the world now.” She observes that children who grow up with yoga are more self-aware and less likely to turn toward dysfunctional behavior patterns, and sees a huge difference in her classes between those used to yoga, and those who are new to the concept. “They’re more resilient, less wounded,” she explains. “They have less baggage. Those who didn’t grow up with yoga are suffering more inside. Yoga gives them the tools they need to heal themselves—breathing, movement and mindfulness.”
Debbie Belkin is a certified YogaKids Facilitator who teaches children from 3 to 16 years old. When she first started, she focused on younger kids but now enjoys working with the whole range and catering to their different needs and preferences. She works with preschoolers and kindergarteners in the Glencoe Park District and at Deerfield’s Congregation B’Nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, and uses the YogaKids philosophy of focusing on multiple factors of intelligence, such as linguistic, intellectual, mathematical and spatial. “I emphasize the education aspect,” she says. “You can engage more students by having a wide variety of activities using stories, music, games and math, but always with a yoga focus.”
With the youngest kids, she tries to include a craft activity, such as coloring a picture of an elephant after doing Elephant Pose. During Triangle Pose, they talk about the different triangles the body can make. Final Savasana, which involves lying on the back and breathing quietly, will sometimes include placing a stuffed animal on the children’s abdomens so they can watch it rise and fall as they breathe. “Some kids learn visually, some learn through art, some learn by doing and by adding activities,” Belkin says. “You try to appeal to everyone.”
She also teaches three classes at North Suburban YMCA in Northbrook: one for ages 6 through 10, one for ages 11 through 14 and another for children of all ages with special needs. She still uses games for the older kids, but makes them more age-appropriate. Having themes, such as heart openings for Valentine’s Day and Soldier Pose for Hanukkah, and reading poems to the children help them stay even more mindful in their practice.
Victoria Otto, a Physical Education (PE) teacher at Highland Park High School, provides the academic requirements her students need by giving them the background and science behind what they are doing. “I focus on the science first—the biomechanics and philosophy around the movement,” she says. “They get to know the physiology behind it, and understand why this is helping the lymphatic system, endocrine system and cardiovascular system.” Otto says that by experiencing the moves themselves, students are able to get a more personal understanding.
Otto has been teaching yoga at the school for 13 years. It started as part of a cross-training class, and the response was so strong that the school made it an elective. Now she has five classes a day of students who sign up for a full year of yoga, and due to space constraints she has to turn people away. Still, each class has about 28 students in it, and she says it’s ideal for a school environment. “It’s great for any budget because you don’t need any special equipment, and can be done anywhere,” she says. “It offers a little time in the overscheduled day where the students are doing something constructive for themselves.”
Because PE class, or physical activity in general, can be overwhelming for many students, Otto emphasizes that there is no competition in her classes. She gives positive reinforcement for a variety of different things, not just a perfect Downward Dog. “I can always find something, even if it’s Breath of Fire, that they are doing well,” she says. “It’s about them focusing inward. I tell them, ‘We have this amount of time today, and I’m asking you to focus on you.’”
For distracted teenagers, that can be incredibly difficult. At the beginning of the year, most students have trouble being still and breathing deeply for three minutes. By the end of the term, they are able to sit and meditate for 25-minute intervals. Other teachers report that students who take Otto’s classes are more relaxed and productive in the classroom.
Weber, likewise, finds that even her youngest students love the relaxing parts. “Their favorite pose is Savasana, the deep relaxation at the end,” she says. “They’re thinking with their ‘heart center,’ not their intellectual mind. It feels good to them to breathe and connect. They know it feels good to get their feet rubbed, to be touched in a sacred way.”
In addition to providing a physical and mental release, yoga helps youngsters work through some of the most prevalent emotional issues they face. Otto says students struggling with self-esteem, confidence and sexual identity who practice yoga feel better and more accepting about themselves. She gets an outpouring of positive feedback from students on their final review. One student wrote: “Coming to yoga, one thing I really noticed is that I was never judged in the classroom environment, which was really nice.” Otto tells them that yoga is not about competing; it’s about understanding and accepting where you are at this moment in time. Belkin agrees that her teens especially like having something non-competitive to do. “There is so much competition in the rest of their lives that this should be an oasis for them,” she says. “Kids see that by doing yoga poses every week they start to improve, and they are able to focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.”
Heaven Meets Earth’s Weber believes that by trying yoga at an early age, children are given the opportunity to awaken the consciousness, rewire the brain and develop new patterns. And if Otto’s teenagers are any indication, it seems to be working. Before talking about the chakras—the body’s centers of energy—she first leads the students through a heart meditation. At the end of one meditation, Otto recalls a student who exclaimed that all she saw was green, which is coincidentally the color of the heart chakra. “It’s pretty fun to watch them process, watch them grow, see what they do with their experiences,” she says.
Lisa Faremouth Weber – Heaven Meets Earth Yoga, 2746 Central St., Evanston, IL 60201. 847-475-1500. HeavenMeetsEarthYoga.com.
Debbie Belkin – Debbie.Belkin@gmail.com. Glencoe Park District, 690 Birch Rd., Glencoe, IL 60022 . 847-835-3030. GlencoeParkDistrict.com. North Suburban YMCA, 2705 Techny Rd., Northbrook, IL 60062. 847-272-7250. NSYMCA.org. Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, 1201 Lake Cook Rd., Deerfield, IL 60015. 847-940-7575. BJBE.org.
Victoria Otto – Highland Park High School, 433 Vine Ave., Highland Park, IL 60035. 224-765-2000. HPHS.Dist113.org.
For more information on the benefits of yoga for children in school, see YogaRecess.org.
Carrie Jackson is a freelance writer, blogger, and devoted yogi based in Evanston, IL. Visit her at SpeakingOfCare.BlogSpot.com