Uh oh. We have a hitter. A shover to be precise. As soon as any of my other students get close to him, he turns his body square to face them, pauses, and then pushes them, sometimes to the ground. There are tears. Can you imagine this happening in an adult yoga class? Power Vinyasa yoga would take on a whole new meaning, eh?
But in my world of teaching yoga to toddlers, this is just part of business as usual. Because, sometimes, small children hit or push or pull hair or take something that doesn’t belong to them. Because they are toddlers! They are walking babies who may or may not be able to communicate their complex feelings and discoveries. There are countless developmental arguments to support the simple fact that very young children are learning how to be in the world. What better place to nurture the nebulous transition from being the center of the universe to part of a community than a yoga class?
The benefits of yoga for tiny practitioners mirror the benefits for adults. Yoga cultivates a practice of meditative concentration or focus. I am easily distracted. It can be difficult for me to dig in and concentrate on something, like writing an article for the Park Slope Reader, say. My own yoga practice has helped me tremendously on this front. Little children are building up the mental muscle it takes to focus, too! And all the while the bright, new world beckons from all angles. Focusing is a skill and takes practice!
Brianna Klemm’s original objective for coming to a yoga class with her twenty-month-old son Casper was, “to get my toddler out of the house!” Over time, yoga became a big part of how Klemm understood her son; “Because of this class I know how quickly he can learn, I know how many of his body parts he can identify, I know he can follow instructions and pay attention. Class has been an amazing tool for learning about my kid.
Other benefits for toddlers include body awareness, reinforcing gross and fine-tune motor skills with playful activities, and learning how to balance. Most new walkers have an adorable wobbliness and, like older humans, tend to favor their dominant side. When we practice yoga with our tots, it becomes an even richer experience. Let’s model for our children how good it feels to move our bodies and hope this healthy habit lasts a lifetime. Oh. And it’s fun! Yoga can be a lot of fun. (Even if you hate real, grown up style yoga.)
So what does a toddler yoga class look like?
When most people think of yoga, they imagine a quiet, calm room, sitar music, and healthy people stretching their sweaty bodies in complicated ways. They may even imagine shivasana—the comfy copse-pose relaxation that happens at the end of class. Then, using some sort of mental photoshop, they replace the adults in their mental image with seventeen-month-olds and everything short circuits. A robot voice goes off inside their heads: Does not compute. Toddlers scream. Toddlers bang walls. Toddlers eat sand. Will not yoga. Repeat. Will not yoga.
Yoga is not a practice reserved only for strong, fit adults! For young children, yoga can be a way of exploring animals and shapes, overcoming obstacles, learning about their bodies, embodying dramatic play, balancing and stretching, and discovering what they didn’t know they could do.
Let’s get rid of that image of the relaxing, quiet yoga class, OK? This is different! Toddler yoga classes are typically lead as a ‘mommy & me’ partner style class. Every child has an adult to accompany them. Parents and caregivers are the key to having a great class. The more involved the parents are, the more both the child and the adult will get out of the experience.
Yoga Play Activities
So what do you do with new walkers through threes in a group yoga class, then? I believe that very young children do well with structured group activities. It gives them a sense of security to know what’s coming next.
Don’t worry that your little one needs to behave in a certain way. My job, as the instructor, is to help support that learning through safe, age appropriate, engagement. That’s it. Your little one may seriously not do a single thing I say—and I don’t expect them to. They may be taking in more than you think. There is a bit of leap of faith that my parents have to take.
Abstract thought is lost on most small children. That’s why I like to use lots of puppets and stuffed animals in my classes. Not only do the puppets represent a concrete image of the animals, they also help small children understand compassion and gentleness. I like to let students feed the puppets and give them kisses. Then it’s time to become the animal! In tot yoga the down dogs bark, frogs hop and say ribbit, and trees balance with their leaves blowing in the breeze.
Can’t make it to class? Here are a couple of games you can play at home.
I Went to the Farm and I Saw a…
This game is a playful way to organize some traditional yoga postures around a kid- friendly viewpoint. You can play at home by having a few varied stuffed animals at hand. Say, “ I went to the farm and I saw an…” and then pull a stuffed animal out from your pile. If your child is verbal, see if they can say the name of the animal. If not, tell them the name and then show them the yoga pose. This game can become very silly if you find an octopus at the farm! (Again, have fun with it.)
Poses and Pages
Reading a book to fifteen walking babies is a bit like being approached by tiny zombies. They just keep getting closer and closer and closer. Every time a new animal character is introduced in the book, we do a yoga pose associated with that animal. That means you, too, mom! Find a small open space at home, pick a couple of stories, and have at it. The stories will come to life as you embody the animals. This is a great way to share books with an active child who may have a harder time sitting still for an entire story.
Songs and Music
Music is a terrific way for a young yogi to access poses. Songs have had a big impact on Davina Wilner’s daughter Adelaide. Wilner writes, “It’s been fun to watch her language progression through yoga. She started off just repeating a few words from class, such as, “tree pose” and “down dog.” Now she likes to sing every single one of the songs she’s learned at class when we’re at home.”
When Adelaide broke her arm and had to spend hours in the ER in the middle of the night, “the only thing that would keep her calm was when I would sing the final song we sing at the end of yoga class, “My little light shines to your little light, Namaste.” I have never in my life been so thankful to know a song!
But what about “the shover”?
It’s important to remember that nobody is teaching their tot how to pull a barrette out of someone’s hair or push a kid over when they are off balance. That’s not real life. Being in a group with the same families each week gives us a chance to support one another. Incidents at the playground have a fleeting quality; it’s easy to vilify “the shover” and “the shover’s” parents there. As a parent, I love knowing that other people in my community care about my kids! It’s tough to be a human animal. I’d much rather kick up my heels in horse pose. Nay!
Jessica Phillips Lorenz teaches yoga to babies, tots, and families at Bend and Bloom in Park Slope on Fridays and Saturdays.