"Yoga Kids" founder Marsha Wenig has been studying and teaching yoga for more than 16 years. She's a certified yoga instructor, a mom, and the creator of the Gaiam Kids series of fitness-play activity DVDs. We talked with Marsha about her approach to teaching kids, how she hopes kids and parents will use her programs, and why yoga helps kids become healthy, confident, creative and self-reliant grown-ups.
Gaiam: What do kids learn from yoga?
Marsha: Some years ago I attended a "yoga for children" workshop, and it just touched me. My kids were 2 and 4 at the time. I came home and taught them some of what I learned and they really responded-so I started teaching it at their Montessori school. I loved the thought of taking something that transformed my life and giving those gifts to my children.
For them, the poses encourage self-esteem and body awareness in a physical activity that's non-competitive. It also develops strength, balance and flexibility.
How do you teach kids yoga?
The poses are all imitating animals or elements in nature so it's easy for them to relate in this way. They play with the poses, and they also get tidbits about animal behavior and how their bodies work. In Dog Pose, for example, they spread their puppy paws and stretch and bark like a dog; in Tree Pose they imagine their feet are roots that they dig into the earth for balance and their arms reach like branches for the sky. The children imagine what it would feel like to flap their wings like a butterfly or slither like a snake. Also, the instructional footage of the children is inter-cut with live animals, which the children love to watch.
Many of the poses you've created for children are "renamed," like The Volcano and Bunny Breath. How did those happen?
As I taught the classes, and even during the three months we rehearsed for the video, I noticed the kids doing some things naturally. They'd stand, press their hands together and shoot them up into the air like a volcano, so I started telling them to use that: "Do you ever feel so angry or excited inside that you could explode?" They can release those feelings. And they can use the Bunny Breath-three quick inhales and a long exhale-to calm themselves down a little.
Is your Yoga Kids approach meant for families to do together?
That is a wonderful way to use it. I tell parents-especially those who do yoga themselves-to take care and not get hung up on perfection. The idea is for the kids to engage their bodies and their imaginations; play at it, make animal sounds together. Show them guidelines, yes, but know that a 3-year-old is not going to lie still and may not even want to do more than 10 or 15 minutes.
I know lots of parents who don't do yoga who love this program for their kids. And it's great for the children of yoga parents, because yoga stops being something that takes Mommy and Daddy away. Yoga Kids shows them yoga so that they feel included, know it feels good, and want to do more. I believe this can create the basics of a lifelong practice.
How does it help to build self-esteem?
The children are shown exploring the poses and sometimes struggling with the moves. In The Flamingo, standing on one foot, for instance, it's hard to do, and you see Brad losing his balance. But you also hear me saying, "Try again." They're watching kids just like themselves, not giving up because something is challenging, but continuing to practice and grow.
There's even a headstand-you could look at that as really advanced, but what kid doesn't try standing on his head? This one is done against the wall, so it's easier. And if they fall over, so what? They try again. And the determination to keep trying helps build self-esteem. They learn to not be afraid of not being perfect and they feel good about their bodies.