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Yoga helps even little ones channel energy, emotion

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hundreds of studios across country teach yoga to children
  • Series such as Charlie and the Chakra Factory designed to ease kids into the practice
  • 12-year-old boy uses yoga to help him cope with parents divorce

Decatur, Georgia (CNN) -- Gigi reaches up into her sun salutation. She steps back into her high lunge and kicks her legs straight into plank pose, a push-up she holds without wobbling for 10 seconds before looking up impatiently at her yoga teacher.

It's close to 6 p.m. She's had a long day.

She collapses on her mat, rolls on her back and closes her eyes. And then sends one finger digging up her nose.

What? C'mon, she's only 5.

This is yoga for kids. Once an oddity reserved for only the crunchiest communities, downward dog for the grade-school set is now being taught in studios from Minnetonka, Minnesota, to Moscow, Russia. And educators, including Chicago's Namaste School, which serves mostly poor kids who speak a language other than English, are turning to yoga to connect with a generation that many say has been dismissed as deficit this or hyperactive that.

At Decatur Yoga and Pilates studio, just outside Atlanta, Georgia, Dylan Laakmann, sits quietly next to his mother. The lanky 12-year-old whose fashionably shorn hair hangs in his face, describes himself as a "downer" before he started taking yoga two years ago.

"I wasn't really that happy a kid, I guess, and my grades, they weren't that good," he says, his taut mouth easing as he relaxes in conversation. "I wasn't that joyful."

Dylan goes to an Atlanta school known for its highly serious curriculum that offers German to first graders and lessons in "circle games" and "beeswax modeling." His mother, Hanlie Laakmann, wanted her son to get involved in something and thought his sensitive nature might take to yoga. She's been especially glad about the move lately since she and her husband told Dylan that they are divorcing.

"Like, it's hard, with the divorce," he says, sitting on a yoga mat, replying to a stranger asking him to open up in front of a television camera. He tunes it all out for a moment, crosses his legs and closes his eyes. He begins to breathe deeply and then slowly lifts himself into a headstand. When he comes down, he's ready to answer more questions.

Dylan's stoicism is broken for a moment by a dozen miniature yogis who've been unleashed in the studio. Kids like Gigi, some as young as 3, can take seven-week long sessions with names such as Charlie and the Chakra Factory and the Wizard of Ohm.

Video: Pint-sized Yoginis
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Watching a class is like watching puppies. It's adorable. They bark in Downward Dog and hiss on their bellies in Snake pose. They imagine aloud what color their gum would be while repeatedly breathing deeply for "Bubble Gum Breath." They act out "Go To Your Room" by bending over, grabbing their ankles and stomping backward, squatting down and mimicking slamming a door.

Except for a few tears and a brief tug-of-war over a mat, it all seems nothing more than cute until this stunning moment: Many of these first and second-graders remain completely still and quiet, in a meditative pose, for nearly five minutes.

"It's just incredible," Al-Yasha Williams said, shaking her head in disbelief when her 6-year-old daughter Sole Williams-Brewer walks out of class much more dialed back than when she bounded in. "My daughter has a lot of energy and this has channeled it."

Marsha Wenig saw the calming effect yoga breathing gave her young students more 20 years ago when she taught in a California school. "I thought, yoga calms me so why wouldn't kids get the same thing out of it? Yoga works for people willing to open their minds and you don't get anymore open-minded than a child," she said.

"Parents heard about it and wanted to know what I was doing. I just invited them over, shoved the furniture aside and showed them some poses they could do with their kids."

Though radical at that time, teaching yoga to kids still isn't entirely free of controversy. A Baptist minister complained a few years ago that a public school in Aspen was teaching a form of Hinduism.

But the objections are rare and don't appear to be hurting business. Wenig's company YogaKids has sold millions of how-to flashcards, books, DVDs and board games -- think Twister with a Yoga twist -- and hosts training seminars ($849 for four days) to certify instructors in its 200-pose practice.

At least 150 U.S. schools follow YogaKids' extensive lesson plan. For example, "Polar Bear" -- sitting on the heels, knees apart, chest to the floor -- can lead to discussions about where polar bears live and why they hibernate. The balancing pose "Flamingo" asks children to calculate how the bird's wingspan in feet and meters.

There are several other entrepreneurial kids yoga endeavors -- the Decatur studio teaches a style called Grounded Kids that offers bandanas much like karate belts for students who master increasingly difficult poses. But though styles differ, they stay faithful to one tenet: There is no baby talk in kids yoga. If a pose is meant to stimulate the thymus -- like Tarzan's Thymus Tap, a light tapping on an organ in the chest cavity that regulates immunity -- then that anatomy is explained.

Lynda Meeder appreciated that directness. She quit her job as a guidance counselor in the Boston, Massachusetts, area to teach yoga to children and teens in a studio and the classroom.

"The older a kid gets, 13, 14, 15, we all know how hard it is for them to understand their bodies. It's especially difficult when you have a child that's been told they have ADHD, they've been told they cannot because that's the way they are," she said. "I've seen yoga give kids their control back. They feel like they're taking it and they can steer again."

In Columbia, Missouri, mom Sarah Wells Kohl heard about yoga for kids and enrolled her 9-year-old, Dakota. She had been struggling for months, trying every alternative arts program she could find, to address her son's exceptionally high energy.

"He couldn't settle himself, he was just very high-strung and bored with everything," she said. "But, wow, yoga opened something in him. Pranayama breathing (slow, steady deep yogic breaths) put him in his space. When things get too tight, rough and crazy, do his own little Eagle pose.

"I once found him in his bedroom chanting," she said. "It almost seems like we put him on a yoga mat instead of putting him on medication."

 
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