ANCIENT ART OFFERS KIDS A VARIETY OF HEALTHY BENEFITS
Standing in the classic vrksasana, better known as the tree pose, 9-year-old Bradley Wernick teeters on his left foot and stretches out his skinny arms. Yoga instructor Antonia Kao offers encouragement: ``Imagine what kind of tree you are, what color leaves you have,'' she says as she mirrors his pose in the tangerine-colored Mountain View studio. Bradley's sister Emily, 6, sits on the floor, watching in rapt attention.
Bradley and Emily are among an estimated quarter-million American children who practice yoga on a regular basis. And considering the Bay Area's affinity for all things yoga, perhaps it's no surprise that more kids' studios are cropping up here, according to San Francisco-based Yoga Journal.
Proponents say children's yoga provides kids with coordination, flexibility and focus in a non-competitive environment.
Wa Chan, Bradley and Emily's mother, saw yoga as an opportunity for her children to pick up deep breathing and meditation techniques -- skills she learned herself during prenatal yoga, when she was carrying Bradley. ``I hope that as they get older, they'll be able to meditate,'' she said.
Bradley agreed. ``I like yoga because it can calm me down,'' he said.
While traditional forms of yoga emphasize philosophical Hindu concepts of prana, life force, and moksha, spiritual transcendence, children's yoga has a simpler goal -- pure enjoyment.
``It's about fun and play, not this serious dogma,'' said Marsha Wenig, the creator of YogaKids, an Indiana-based program that produces instructional videos and trains children's yoga teachers. ``It's about feeling good and being amazed at the things you can do.''
In keeping with that, classes for children, which usually range from $10 to $15 for one drop-in session, tend to be short and fast-paced. Instructors judge poses less rigorously, play games and incorporate a lot of animal imagery in class. Kao, an instructor at Mountain View's Yoga is Youthfulness studio, describes her relaxed teaching method as ``organic.''
``Obviously, you don't teach kids like you would teach adults; kids don't have that kind of attention span,'' she said.
Physical differences between children and adults are another consideration when tailoring yoga classes to young students. Kids should not maintain yoga poses for too long, said Vasanthi Bhat, founder of Vasantha Yoga Health and Fitness Center in San Jose, who teaches 40 to 45 children a week.
``Adults can stay in a pose for one minute, but children still haven't developed their bone strength and bodies,'' Bhat said, adding that people commonly overestimate the natural flexibility of children. ``Some children are so stiff that they can't even do poses that my 80-year-old students do.''
But with proper teaching, kids can develop balance and flexibility, instructors say. Yoga can also help young students gain self-confidence and a sense of spirituality.
``When children can play, relax and exercise their imaginations, they're building really important blocks of self-esteem and identity,'' said Mariana Doig, a family therapist who offers yoga classes in San Carlos for kids ages 5 to 9. Doig is currently developing a series of classes for hyperactive children, whom she believes may especially benefit from yoga's calming effects. Research has been inconclusive, but a 2004 study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that boys diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder showed a decrease in symptoms when they regularly practiced yoga along with taking medication.
And the benefits of yoga can extend beyond the individual child. In 2000, Bhat started teaching yoga classes for the whole family to give parents a first-hand demonstration of her teaching methods. Now, she said, they are the most popular of her studio's offerings, attracting up to 40 people a session from age 3 on up.
Rita Sarathy of San Jose, who attends Bhat's classes with her sons Rohit, 10, and Rahul, 6, says the classes are a bonding experience in her family. ``We are all preoccupied with work and deadlines,'' she said, ``but Vasanthi emphasizes that we all have to communicate and appreciate one another.'' After three months of classes, her sons have started to join her in practicing yoga at home in the morning, Sarathy added.
As increasingly commonplace as yoga has become, its exotic appeal still resonates with children, including Chan's kids. ``I think they like to brag to their friends that they can do the tree pose,'' Chan said. ``It's something different.''