Yoga, Children, & the Art of Play

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I’m a yoga teacher. But my life at home isn’t exactly Zen, because I’m also a mother. Literally, as I am writing this, my husband and daughter are playing catch with her Lovey Bunny. Every couple of seconds a floppy stuffed animal goes whizzing by, three feet from my face. Soon, my infant son will need to nurse…

Once you have children everything is a little, well, tighter. Time, space, money, and my jeans are all tighter these days. My hold on my patience can be too, especially after climbing three flights of stairs with a temperamental, chatty toddler and a baby strapped to me. Man, by 3:30 p.m. most days, everybody around here needs an attitude adjustment.

For new parents in particular, stress-reducing physical activity is both necessary and seemingly impossible. What can you do when you’re tethered to the apartment?

One playful solution is to create a family yoga practice (try calling it “yoga play time”). Take the chance to have some exercise time together. Family yoga models self-care, teamwork, practicing new skills, and getting downright silly.

Create a Yoga Playspace
You don’t need a dedicated studio space, though there are great classes in the neighborhood, like the one I teach at Bend and Bloom. You can create a bit of yogic ambiance in any room with a few steps. Set yourself up for success and remember that nobody can compete with a toy box. Put things away. Lay a blanket on the floor to create a dedicated yoga area. Unplug! Put. The. iPhone. Down. While music may be a tempting way to set the scene for a mini-yoga class at home, I recommend holding off when you’re first getting started. For most kids music is something to do, not something to be ignored in the background. Music is a key component to a family yoga class, but think of it as a prop or a tool and use it judiciously and with purpose.

One thing I always tell parents when they come to my classes is to keep their expectations loose. This is especially true at home. It’s a huge accomplishment if you get to hold a pose or two and your child tries at least one yoga play activity. Managing our expectations is a big part of family yoga. (It’s also a big part of parenting). You’re not going to get a big work out in, folks. But, you are going to move your body with your child, learn from each other, and hopefully have fun!

Yoga Play for Infants, Toddlers, and Older Kids
Here are a few poses and activities to share with the yoginis in your life of varying ages.

Infants:
Babies are often the greatest teachers of being in the moment. They aren’t anticipating their next feeding or diaper change, though you might be. Allow them to inspire what it means to truly be. This meditative state may be something many of the clock-keepers in the family struggle with (like me!). Take a moment to check in with your infant. Ask them if they are ready to play! If they seem fussy or not up for it, try again another time.

Flying Babies!
This partner pose serves as abdominal work for the adult as well as tummy time for the infant. Start sitting on the floor with your knees bent, feet on the floor in front of you. Bring the baby to your shins, facing you. Hold the baby close to your shins draw your belly muscles in and slowly roll down onto your back. Try to keep your shins level and parallel to the floor. Hold on to your baby! Draw your knees close to your face and make a silly sound for your baby. Then extend your legs away from you a few inches, draw your knees in again. Repeat! Try to keep your head and neck relaxed while you engage your lower abdominal muscles. You can cue yourself by drawing your belly button down towards the floor. Your baby will delight in seeing you from above.
Note: keep a burp cloth handy! My son has spit up directly into my mouth while “flying.” If your baby just ate, I recommend waiting a bit.
Jess 6
Toddlers:
Toddlers are a notoriously irrational community. Their quirks are part of what makes them amusing to be around and, yet, they can be extremely trying. Parents, it’s ok to be a little selfish here. Check in with yourself. What’s tight on your own body? What do YOU need? I recommend starting by taking a deep breath.

Tissue Breathing
This kid friendly pranayama activity requires a box of tissues.
Everyone should have one tissue to start. Pinch the tissue at its corners with both hands. Hold the tissue up in front of your face, a couple of inches from your mouth. Take a deep breath in, then blow out through your lips and watch the tissue move. Don’t let go of the tissue yet! Try again, this time extend your arms a bit so your tissue is a little further away from your face. The idea is to see how far you can reach your tissue with your breath. When you have extended your arms as far as you can, it’s time to let the tissues fly. Take the deepest breath you can and let go of the tissue when you exhale so the tissue goes flying. Blow the tissue at your child. Let them blow a tissue at you. Have fun with it! Breathing is a big part of yoga and an excellent post-tantrum activity!

Poses from the Page
A great way to frame family yoga time is to use a beloved picture book. Because many of the traditional yoga postures are inspired by and resemble animals, books with animals will be your best bet. (Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell and pretty much anything by Sandra Boynton or Eric Carle are great choices). This literacy building activity is helpful for someone who has a basic familiarity with poses. If you are new to yoga, don’t fret. Yoga Journal’s website has a terrific search tool for beginner poses. (Yogajournal.com). Read the book to your child, and every time you see an animal or meet a new animal character, take that shape with your body. Let your animals talk! Bark in downward facing dog! Hiss in your cobra poses! Let your leaves blow in the breeze in tree pose!

5-10 yr olds
Older kids want to be challenged in a playful way. Yoga is inherently non-competitive. There are no points to tally, no winners or losers. But what do you do when siblings start to show their natural competitive spirit? When you hear your child start to say, “I’m doing it better!” Try to find ways to reframe their urge to win by competing against themselves. Offer to set a timer to see how long your child can hold a pose. Write it down in a journal or on the calendar and try again next week or tomorrow to see if they can hold it longer or shorter.

Crow Pose
This traditional yoga posture is fabulous for building focus, balance, and strength. This arm balance takes practice (I will conquer you one day, Crow! I vow it!). Start out in a squat position with your feet wider than your hips. Place your hands down in front of you about eight inches or so—enough so that when you bend your arms you make a little shelf with your elbows. Squeeze your arms with your legs. Start to tip forward. Pick up one foot and then the other.

Note: This pose is often harder for adults than it is for kids! It’s okay if their feet stay on the floor. If you try to correct too much, your child will feel discouraged and lose interest. Let them find their poses in their own time.

Turtle on a Rock
In this partner pose, the parent comes into child’s pose. The child will stand close to your body with their back towards you. The child will sit on your tush and slowly lie back on you. This should feel very nice for both of you!

Yoga Family Moments
Playing yoga together regularly allows a new language to develop, where our bodies can say what our words can’t. When my daughter wants my attention (usually when I’m nursing the baby) she’ll come into camel pose, a posture on your knees where you reach your arms back to touch your feet, allowing your head to lean back. She knows that this is the ultimate way to expose her “tickle spot,” under her chin. When I take her up her sweet invitation and she falls apart in giggles, I laugh, too. That might be our family yoga practice for the day, as close to Zen as we’re going to get. And as parents, we’ve got to take our Zen where and when we can.

Jessica teaches Postnatal/Baby Yoga classes to babies and toddlers on Fridays and Family Yoga to 2.5-6 year olds with grown-ups on Saturdays at Bend and Bloom in Park Slope.

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