One of the most common questions I hear when people learn I teach kids yoga is, “can kids really calm down for yoga class?” My answer is “Om Yeah!” But also that kid energy, as endless and amazing as it is, should be celebrated, and explored, in practice.
Don’t get me wrong: a kids class will always look and feel different than an adult practice. In an adult yoga class, when the teacher says “Downward Facing Dog” rows of dogs magically appear. In a kids class, you might see a few dogs, a few puppies, some barking, there may be a cat in there somewhere, you get the picture. When a yoga teacher walks into an adult class to teach, students are typically sitting in Sukasana meditating or lying on their mats resting, or perhaps quietly talking with a neighbor. In a kids class, you might walk into a room of true energy rockets and chatty yogis!
It's important to first accept and know that kids have beautiful boundless energy. That doesn’t mean, however, that kids can’t or shouldn’t hold poses or lie still in savasanas. In fact, kids should be practicing focus in yoga, know how to cultivate that in themselves and apply it to life. And it is necessary to have some calm to teach.
Tip 1: Don’t fight the energy, go with it. If you try to impose stillness and silence on a room full of 7-year-old jumping beans, they will grow even more energetic and chaos will ensue. Don’t fight the energy and the truth of what’s happening in front of you, but go with it. Didn’t someone say, “What I resist persists?”
I often start my classes by gauging kid energy levels. If the room is measuring in the hyperactive range, we begin class with energy releasers. I LOVE playing Jello with kids even before the more controlled movement of Sun Salutations. Start in Mountain pose and count down from 3. 3-2-1 Jello! Jello “pose” means wiggling, as fully and completely as jello itself in the old Bill Cosby ads. Remind students that the jello must stay in the “bowl”, i.e. the mat, but can be as silly and crazy as needed. Variations include gluing both feet to the ground and playing “jello” with only your body, wiggling arms, your head, letting your lips flutter. Can you “jello” with only your face? Get all the wiggles out, but keep one ear open for the ringing of the bell or Tibetan singing bowl. The ring means to Freeze! Can you freeze on the spot? Can you freeze in a Tree pose or Dancer? Maybe you freeze in any way your body wants to, then look down at your body and figure out what “pose” you’re making. I’ve heard some really creative on-the-spot pose inventions in this way. Yogis have frozen in Statue of Liberty pose, and Artist!
Tip 2: Make stillness a game. After the wiggles have been released, a few sun salutations have been explored to warm up the body, and maybe we’ve breathed deeply to center, you can encourage students to sink further into their poses by making stillness a game. Pick a balancing pose or standing posture (Warriors are a favorite for this) and see Who Can Hold the Pose the longest. If you prefer not to add an element of competition to the practice, students can compete with themselves. Find your shape, ring the bell, and begin counting. I’ve been utterly amazed by how long students will hold poses in this way. While counting, this gives us time to really “clean up the poses.” (ex. 30...is your knee over your ankle?...31...) Students have time to hear alignment points they might not otherwise. If a lot of time is going by you can step up the game by adding variations, or encouraging deeper poses. Often I’ll ask my standing Warriors to sink deeper down and will show them what this means. Or perhaps our Tree Poses will turn into Windy Trees, with arms extended and a slight “wave” in the branches, all the while keeping balance. In yoga, we always seek symmetry and the kids know this, so whatever pose we do on one side we’ll do on the other. This means another chance to try holding your pose as long as you can. Remind students that yoga is a “practice not a perfect” and that falling is OK, as is letting go of the pose earlier rather than later to rest. This is a great teaching point, too... A for effort, not perfection.
Tip 3: Savor your Savasana. Kids love Savasana, which a testament to the need for rest and receiving of attention and love. A great Savasana variation for kids is “starfish” where kids lie with arms and legs extended in a star shape and imagine they have suction cups on the bottom of their arms and legs, attaching them to the ocean floor. Feel the expanse of ocean above you, watch some fish swim by, chill out.
I love giving kid-sized adjustments in Savasana, as long as that is OK with the kid and the facility, of course. I always give kids the option of touch, and ask that they show me with a thumbs-up in their starfish if they’d like a third-eye massage or other adjustment. I state that only still and quiet starfish can receive the Third-Eye massage, that still body language is what will tell me they are ready. This point, when stuck to, will maintain a calm Savasana moment. Don’t be afraid to swim by starfish who are wiggling! A Third-Eye massage consists of a gentle temple massage followed by a light touch on the third eye, with or without lotion.
Tip 4: Praise, Praise, Praise. This goes for all of class, but be sure to focus on praising the kids awesome efforts, especially when you notice a kid who has trouble with stillness really trying to focus and control her/his body. Praise, praise, praise! You cannot give enough Good Words.