Pamela Emery met her godson in the lobby of Moksha Yoga Center in Bucktown after his class. She crouched down to his level and asked if he felt relaxed from the experience.
“Ommm,” Nathan, 5, said, raising his hands and touching his fingertips together.
“And where does yoga take your mind?” Emery asked softly.
Nathan turned to look at her and said simply, “Up.”
Emery, a 39-year-old flight attendant who lives in Lincoln Park, was participating in a three-day workshop through Global Family Yoga to learn how to teach yoga to children. On Saturday, the group watched a 90-minute yoga class for about a dozen preschool and elementary-aged children as a practicum.
Global Family Yoga, a Pahoa, Hawaii-based company that offers workshops in Chicago, educates many age groups about the benefits of yoga for children and parents.
“I highly recommend family yoga and I teach it a lot because it is really the best way to get kids practicing yoga,” said Mira Binzen, director of training for Global Family Yoga. “Even if families don’t go home and do it, it doesn’t cost a lot of money, it’s fun for the whole family, there are child-focused games and storylines and it lets parents do it at their own level.”
She said the benefits of yoga for children are the same as in adults: an increased sense of body awareness, a sense of ease and flexibility and strength, focus and coordination. The main difference is that kids get bored quickly, so adding in sound and movement is key, she said.
For example, rather than stretching and saying, “Take a deep breath,” she tells children to reach their arms up like wings and asks, “What kind of bird are you?”
Simple traditional yoga poses are used with young children. At the class Saturday, Binzen urged the children to focus on different body parts to improve their strength and focus.
“Your body is always sending you messages,” she told the children.
Whispers of “Like this!” and “Hold my hand!” traveled across the room during the class, but for the most part, the children held their composure during each exercise.
Many of them had been exposed to yoga before, either at school or at home. Mark Blankenstein’s children, Stella, 5, and Reed, 3, who took the class, practice often. Blankenstein, a 43-year-old banker who lives near downtown, learned yoga over 10 years ago and recently started teaching classes for both adults and children, including his daughter’s preschool class.
“I tell [my kids] that it relaxes your body,” he said. “I think it ties in with good parenting. At night, I ask, ‘What are you thankful for?’ It’s just consistent with gratitude and appreciation.”
Blankenstein said that as his kids get older, he will teach them more poses, but will never make them practice yoga if they decide they don’t like it.
“The biggest gift you can give kids is the ability to concentrate,” he said. “They’re going to be stressed, but they have this ability to be resilient and that’s a real gift too, [along with] compassion and gratitude.”
Yoga has become increasingly popular in school settings; from preschool to high school, children practice in gym classes and throughout the day to rest their minds. Binzen said she loves the national attention on yoga and isn’t surprised schools are bringing it into the curriculum.
“They seem to see how it works,” she said. “Less behavior challenges, better focus and better grades and they move their bodies.”
Self-reliance and empowerment comes with developing yoga and meditation skills, said Binzen. She emphasized the importance of redirecting children back to an internal experience if they become focused on others around them.
Getting families to invest time in yoga is the biggest challenge for Niquie Dworkin, co-director and coordinator of clinical training and psychologist at the Lakeview Center for Psychotherapy, who offers different types of meditation to accompany counseling. She recommends at least five minutes of meditation a day.
“For children and adults, my top consideration is it’s going to be something they will do,” she said. “It can’t be something too involved. But it’s best to do it every day.”
An avid yogi herself, Emery recently graduated from Moksha Yoga Center and finds teaching children very rewarding. She appreciated the hands-on approach of Binzen at the weekend workshop and said working with her godson’s age range is challenging because they have “their own mindset, their own prerogative.”
Nathan—though unmistakably calmer after the class—illustrated her point well.
Even after all the relaxation techniques, his favorite part was still “handstands, cartwheels and running.”