Imagine a place where you and your baby are always welcome, no matter how exhausted, hormonal, or emotional you may be feeling. Imagine learning about your bodies and your nervous systems and imagine that knowledge helping you thrive during that difficult first year. Now imagine an activity your toddler or preschooler could participate in, an activity that facilitates connection and self-knowledge, an understanding of the brain and self-regulation, an awareness of group dynamics. Imagine having fun participating, and imagine building a support network, a community, a nonjudgmental friendship in the process.
In the desert of this technological age, such an oasis exists in studios, daycares, and preschools, anywhere that yoga classes are offered for parents and babies and for young children. A common reaction to news of this burgeoning practice is surprise; aren’t the little ones too little for yoga? The answer is a resounding no.
From student to teacher: Jayme Hernandez
Yoga offers moms and babies “A true understanding of themselves in a real and raw way, dealing with issues that most people are scared or ashamed to talk about in public,” says instructor and trainer Jayme Hernandez of Nurture Yoga Therapy in Montreal, QC (http://www.nurtureyogatherapy.com/). Hernandez developed an interest in this specialty when she became a mother herself. She leaned hard on her own yoga practice during her daughter’s first year. “The exhaustion of being a first time mother brought up a lot of the anxiety that I had suffered in the past, pushing me into crisis mode,” she explained. With meditation, diet, and in particular yoga, Hernandez found balance and wellness. “That experience inspired me to teach others what I learned in my times of difficulty as a mother.”
Hernandez offers classes for moms and babies who aren’t walking yet. A typical session begins with a theme. “It could be something physically focused, for example, developing the pelvic floor, or mentally or emotionally based, like dealing with exhaustion or a crying baby. It could also be focused on how to effectively communicate with baby through presence and touch. It really depends on how babies and moms are feeling.” Hernandez leads moms and babies through meditation, infant massage, and stretching. “We also integrate movements with mom and baby; we do more dynamic postures and movement and physical group interaction.” She might offer vocal exercises aimed at calming mother’s and baby’s nervous systems. The class ends with a relaxation session.
Different from yoga for adults
What makes Hernandez’ classes and trainings different from adult yoga? “You must understand that the babies are as much your students as the adults. So you develop a keen awareness of babies’ behavioral states, cues, and cries. This helps you learn how to guide parents towards a practice that gets them grounded in their experience, calming both parent and baby. We also work with those very normal emotions and explore how we could be ok with how we are feeling in that moment without judgment and harshness.”
There are certainly challenges. Hernandez: “It can be hard to get mothers truly into their bodies and spirits and out of their racing minds, which come from societal pressures of having to do it all with little or no neighbourly support.” She gives the example of a baby crying in a public space, such as a bus or a restaurant, and how onlookers often judge and blame the mother.
Labor of love
But Hernandez is also passionate about her work. “I love seeing mothers break through a challenge that they are experiencing in their life. I love the pure joy and bliss that emanates from the spirit of a baby. I love introducing a space where we can grow as a community.” Hernandez continues doing yoga herself, since “Holding space for babies and mothers who need so much love and attention requires that I stay disciplined in my own practice and self care.”
Walking the talk: Talia Weisz
Like Hernandez, instructor Talia Weisz of Brooklyn, NY (http://www.taliaweisz.com/) understands the importance of modeling the skills she’s teaching her students. “If you’re teaching it, you have to embody it. If you’re faking it, the kids will know and they won’t believe you. It’s a good challenge, to try to maintain that awareness in myself so I can show up and be real with them and in my life.”
Weisz has taught family yoga for all ages. “The way I teach, the focus is really on the kids, especially when it’s babies and toddlers. The parents’ role is to help engage the kids, and they learn tools to use with their kids at home.” Parental participation is important. “Sometimes it seems like the kids aren’t paying attention but they’re absorbing more than you’d guess. Like the kids who don’t do anything during the class but then they go home and do everything. They know the all songs and the poses and they’re benefitting from the class even though it may seem otherwise. When the parents participate, the kids are more inclined to join when they’re ready.”
Kids yoga: unbridled joy
Weisz is now focused on classes just for kids. How is working with little ones different from teaching adult yoga? “It’s a whole different skill set,” Weisz said. “With adults, there is a huge focus on alignment and safety, as adults are more prone to injury. With kids, I don’t worry about alignment. The only time I correct is if they are doing something unsafe where they might fall on their head or crash into something.”Weisz explains that her classes focus on body exploration and awareness, including awareness of breathing, a tool for self-regulation. “Kids yoga is noisier and messier. There’s tons of laughter and silliness, there’s a lot of chaos at times…there is also unbridled joy, singing and dancing, making silly faces, and telling stories.” Weisz incorporates storytelling into most of her classes. “We cover the fundamentals that you’d find in an adult class: warmup, poses, sun salutations, meditations, and shavassana relaxation at the end. It’s just presented in an age-appropriate way.”
Better than biology class
Like Hernandez, Weisz sees this work as going far beyond what most activities for small children offer. “I’ve been teaching my preschool students about the brain since training with Move with Me Kids Yoga Adventures (http://move-with-me.com/). I teach kids about their brain stem and the fight, flight, or freeze reflex, their mid-brain which regulates how they process emotions, their neocortex which governs thinking and planning and communication and memory.” Weisz uses a floor map with an image of the brain to engage the children in an interactive experience. “We take a tour of the brain and its different parts, and act out the different states of mind associated with each part. We also read stories that reinforce the concepts and make them relatable to the kids.” Weisz teaches her students skills for self-regulation, including breathing and self-massage, skills that they can use when they find themselves in heightened states of anger, stress, or sadness. “I feel like they get it,” she said. “Not to say that they’ve mastered it, but it’s a start. If a child is feeling an intense emotion in class, or if the energy of the group is out of control, I’ll encourage them to use the skills they’ve learned to re-center. Often it works.”
For Weisz, the goal of her yoga classes is to empower the kids to be the best version of themselves and to recognize what that means for them. “Kids learn how to tune into themselves, to connect with themselves and others around them in their environment.” She draws attention to the group dynamic, encouraging her young students to notice the effects of their actions on others and others’ effects on them, to take responsibility for their actions in the shared space of the class.
Loving the stillness
As a newer teacher, she was surprised at how receptive children are to stillness and relaxation. “Even kids who have a hard time slowing down and focusing look forward to the end of class, when I turn off the lights and put on soft music and offer each child a face massage.” Overstimulation is a big issue with children, even for the youngest in daycare and preschool. “They’re surrounded by other kids, constantly bombarded with a lot of stimuli. They’re learning how to process all of that. Yoga is an opportunity to develop some tools for kids to tune in and pause before reacting, so they can react from a more stable place,” she said.
Weisz says she’d like to see those skills being taught as part of the regular curriculum in daycares, preschools, and elementary schools. Move with Me is marketing their Movement & Mindfulness resources widely, so this may become a reality.
Learning with her students
Like Hernandez, Weisz loves her work. “It lets me tap into this very joyful part of myself that I had forgotten about for a long time, as an adult. That playful, wacky, spontaneous, unconditionally loving side of myself. Most of the time, I can access it easily, but sometimes if I’m tired or have things on my mind, I have to make a conscious choice to shift myself into that state where no matter how bad I feel I can still be present with the kids and enjoy the experience. Weisz says teaching has helped her integrate and use the skills she teaches her students. “Kids’ brains are so different from adults’ which sometimes makes it hard to understand their behavior. When I’m confronted with behavior I don’t understand, I’ve learned to pause and center myself so I can assess what’s going on with calmness and compassion, rather than reacting out of frustration. Taking that pause, tuning into the moment, it’s a skill we all need to practice, no matter our age.”
Interested in learning more about yoga for moms and babies or classes for toddlers and preschoolers? Check out the links below for more reading.
“Benefits of Yoga with Baby” http://www.ohbabymagazine.com/toddler/benefits-of-yoga-with-baby-2/
“Yoga for Babies: Is it Safe?” http://www.livescience.com/18688-yoga-babies-safe.html
Video from Fox News of Itsy Bitsy Yoga https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ahz_kpWHq20
“Why Yoga and Kids Go Together” http://www.pbs.org/parents/food-and-fitness/sport-and-fitness/why-yoga-and-kids-go-together/