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Ohm Sweet Ohm

They sprawl across the floor; one child rests his head on the next child’s stomach, the next child’s head on the next stomach. They agreeably build a chain of little sweatpants-clad bodies.

”Do we have to stay like this for the rest of class?” one finally asks. The comment meets much bouncing of heads on giggling tummies.

The point of the exercise, part of the Yoga for Kids class at Liverpool’s CNY Yoga Center, is to demonstrate how connected we all are. A basic tenet of yoga–what one person does affects the other–becomes a somewhat silly game on the hardwood floors of a studio.

The 14 children in this class range from ages 4 to 9 but, in other parts of the country, even infants are learning to pose and breathe. Soccer moms tote yoga mats and teach their toddlers the “child pose,” tucking them into a tiny, quiet ball.

So are toddlers, kids or teens are so stressed that they need the relaxation techniques of Zen and yoga? Ours is a culture inundated with media, music videos and video games, and the purveyors of yoga for the young say kids need and relish the chance to simply be still and relax with themselves.

It is hard to imagine a discipline devoted to stillness and breathing appeals to preschoolers, but more and more kids are drifting away from soccer fields or ballet bars and into a downward dog on the floor of a yoga studio.

“Yoga in general is becoming much more a part of the mainstream. People are looking more at the mind-body connection,” says Julie Daniel, one of the teachers of the Yoga for Kids class at the CNY Yoga Center. “And people who study yoga are thinking, ‘Oh, what a gift to give to my children.’” 

And these kids are introducing themselves to yoga with a decidedly childlike sense of joy. “Several parents have said they hope we do it again because they’re choosing to do yoga instead of other things,” Daniel says. “They’re learning to get in touch with themselves, but also be playful and fun and work with others. They’re learning love, respect and to love yourself and your body.”

Beginning with the “partner pillows” activity, this session focuses on finding the light in everything: the light in me; the light in you; the light in a frog. Many of the exercises are based on the picture book All I See Is Part of Me (Tien Wah Press, 2003).

Daniel reads the book to the class, with some of the kids straining to listen, gazing attentively and sitting nearly on top of her feet, while others hang back near the abandoned yoga mats. One 4-year-old girl with wide brown eyes contributes raptly to the reading of the book. “I see the light when I close my eyes! I see it!” she says.

While yoga is typically about learning poses and then holding them and focusing on breathing, body position and sensation. But holding still like that, Daniel says, proves utterly uninteresting for kids.

“You have to let go of exquisite technique to work with kids,” says Daniel, who started this class this fall, her first time teaching a yoga class for kids. “They need to have fun and feel good about themselves.”

So the poses are modified, personified for the kids’ class. These kids chose from face-down cards on the floor with pictures of animals and trees, and learned the poses for each creature. For the fish they lay flat, facing the ceiling and arch just their back, supported by their elbows and the top of their head. For the lion pose they sit on their knees, put their paws on the floor in front of them and roar their breath out. And with the frog, they hop up and down while murmuring, “The light in me sees the light in the frog.”

Across town at the Zen Center of Syracuse, a Zen for Kids program, which has been ongoing at the center since at least 2000, spawned a Zen for Teens program after the kids in that program, essentially, grew up. Like yoga for kids, the Zen Center program aims to foster calm and self-esteem in young people. There is no physical component, except for breathing, to the Zen class.

Joann Cooke, the director of the Zen for Teens program, describes Zen as independent of any religion. Instead, it’s about the Buddhist practice of simple mindfulness of our own experiences.

“Spending time quietly with themselves helps teens sort out their feelings,” Cooke says. “It’s stressful being a teen-ager. They have a lot of technology available to them. They need to reprogram their brain, to be calm. Having time where you turn your attention to your breath, that’s really good.”

The fledgling class is small right now, but at least five or six teens show up for every Zen for Teens session, where they spend much of their time learning meditation. They sit, eyes open, hands folded with their attention focused on their breathing, counting their breaths.

The original program was typically divided into three sections; for the last session, the teens join the adults for a longer service. Thirty minutes of meditation and chanting end the session. This winter the program will evolve into a weekly program, as opposed to monthly, and will be led by the center’s abbot, Roko Sherry Chayat.

“Meditation calms that voice inside of you that tells you you’re no good,” Cooke says. “It’s so much louder when you’re a teen-ager, you literally get put down more when you’re a teen-ager.”

As with youth yoga, Zen for Teens tailors the traditional Zen service to the specific needs of teen-agers. Cooke says they spend a lot of time discussing issues the teens bring and then applying the Zen perspective.

For example, one of their chosen topics, missed opportunities, was, from the Zen perspective, grounded in a false pretense, Cooke says. “If, at any moment, you’re not paying attention to the moment, those are missed opportunities,” she explains. “Any moment that you’re not fully present is a missed opportunity.”

That shifting of perspective works for Cooke’s 14-year-old daughter Caitlin, who has practiced Zen since she was 8. “It makes it easier to be a teen-ager because you’re more appreciative,” she says. “It’s easier to see the beauty in things, easier to be more respectful of people, even people who are bothering you. It can make you not hate them as much.” She laughs.

The implications for young kids and yoga or Zen, beyond their surprising love of quiet and stillness, prove far-reaching. Mary Hagemann is a YogaKids-certified instructor and teaches yoga classes in several Syracuse and Jamesville schools during Physical Education classes and also as after-school programming. Hagemann thinks of yoga as an alternative or a complement to sports.

As with sports, kids gain an awareness of their bodies and self-confidence and a few hours on the mat can aid the flexibility of young athletes. But yoga, Hagemann says, offers the added benefit of being noncompetitive. That can make it attractive to kids who are not interested in team sports or who are more introverted.

Jackie Clarke teaches the Yoga for Kids class with Daniel; her students include her son, Garrett, 9, and daughter, Avery, 6. “I see them bringing it home, I see them teaching my husband yoga,” Clarke says.

She says Avery especially latched on to the spiritual aspects of yoga. The first-grader recently drew a self-portrait that showed a radiating sun as part of her body. She told her mom it was the light inside of her.

Above all, both teachers in the CNY Yoga Center class believe the class instills a sense of self-esteem. Then again, it’s quite possible the kids don’t yet fully appreciate the well-being or holistic spiritual development provided by yoga.

At a recent class, some of the kids rolled around on their mats, talked out of turn or took every opportunity for energy and movement as an opportunity to run in dizzy circles. But there were nirvana moments. There were indications of the calm and inspiration kids can breathe and pose their way into.

These kids learned “ohm” that night and for a moment the round sound resonated clearly through the studio, all hands pressed together over hearts, all bodies momentarily still.                      

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York