by: Sarah Herrington
Crafting a Kids’ Yoga Practice: Freedom in Form
When working with kids, you have to meet them where they are, and that’s often in a state of high and playful energy. The arch of a typical kids’ yoga class moves from energetic and playful to calm and centered. A sample 5-part kids class structure is outlined below. This structure has proven to keep kids, ages 5-12, in groups ranging from 5-25 students, engaged in a full yoga practice of about 45 minutes.
Tune-In (5 minutes):
Consistency is big with kids. I begin all my classes with the OM “Song.” Especially in public school settings, I define OM as a song instead of a chant, the sound of all sounds mixed together. Have children place their hands on their hearts, or on the back of a friend and feel the vibrations of the OM. I’ve also used Tune-In time to teach basic mantras like Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu, when appropriate. This time marks the transition from other activities to our yoga practice.
Warm-Up (10 minutes):
After a consistent start to class, I begin with child-friendly pranayama practice. There are many ways to teach “breathing exercises” to kids, from the energizing “bunny breath” (a variation of breath of fire in which short, rapid breaths are exhaled from the nose) to calming “take five” breath (in which students inhale and hold for the count of five, using their fingers to count, and then exhale for five.) Once standing, I begin to warm up the little yogis with “balloon breath,” in which kids inhale big balloon-worthy arms, and deflate, perhaps by fluttering the lips, and lowering the arms. When the teacher claps the balloons pop and students fall (gently!) to the floor. This is a way to get little ones used to the idea of following the lead of the yoga teacher, focusing on observation, and having fun in movement.
Sun Saluations. There are so many ways to teach Surya Namaskar to children. A lot have to do with songs, or using drums or claps to signal asana transitions. We use this opportunity to discuss what it means to be a strong, peaceful warrior. What is a warrior and what does he/she do? We also talk about the term Vinyasa, and explore how this flowing sequence of poses is linked with breath and warms up the body, just like the sun warms up the earth. Sometimes we try our Surya Namaskars (Sun Dance for the little ones) with eyes closed for balance and fun.
Learn and Try (15-20 minutes):
At this point, we’ll typically focus on 1-3 poses to work on for the day. Standing poses, sitting poses, twists…..almost all adult poses apply, often with kid-friendly names or variations. For example, we have “windy trees” with swaying branch arms. We also have forests, with trees holding hands. Kids really like group work, and often will want to link their navasanas (boats) by sitting toe to toe and working on balance with a partner, with the boats holding hands. (or, urm, oars)
Some kids yoga teachers like to use this time to lead their students through a themed “yoga adventure.” I find in order for this to be successful, it has to be rather structured and organized. For example, a yoga trip to the zoo might consist of riding off to the zoo in your jeep (chair pose) and then playing with different animal poses that might tie into animals found at the zoo (cobra, lion, camel, fish). Yoga adventures can create a flowing Vinyasa-like experience for little ones, but work best in small groups that can be carefully monitored.
The last few moments of class before savasana I normally dedicate to some sort of yoga game that draws on the poses we’ve practiced for the day. Though this time is kept contained, it does allow kids more opportunity for group work, teamwork, partnership. We often use this time to discuss what it means to work in harmony with friends. We also discuss terms like Satya, or truthfulness. Are we telling the truth to our friends and ourselves and working together fairly?
Relaxation (5 minutes):
I was surprised by how much kids loved Savasana when I first began teaching kids yoga. I assumed the playful and challenging poses would be a hit, but I had no idea how much my students would love lying on their backs and just taking a break. So many kids are over-booked these days. I define Savasana as “rest” pose. I often give adjustments during savasana, such as “third eye massages” or “jello/wiggle tests” (in which students arms or legs are lightly lifted to check for relaxation) but always ask kids if they want to be touched first. Sometimes I’ll lead kids through guided visualizations, and depending on the setting I might use some cream or oil to leave them with a relaxing smell to linger on.
Close (5 minutes):
A bell or a song transitions us into our easy seats, where we regather and sing our Namaste song. Namaste is described as “my little light shines to your little light.”
Working with young yogis provides the perfect opportunity to practice and observe with what Patanjali called in the Yoga Sutras “Stirum Sukham Asanam,” the balance between form and formless, structure and ease. Kids classes require structure to foster playfulness and vice versa. In working with young yogis, one must be a strong and steady presence, but also open to suggestions and play. If the foundation is there, there will be a lot of room for freedom.
My main goals in working with kids are not really teaching all the poses or sanskrit names. I want them to find the joy in yoga, and hopefully plant seeds for further exploration and a lifetime of practice. Teaching yoga to children is extremely rewarding in and of itself, whether you get through the entire class structure outlined above or not. As long as you love yoga and share that, the children will benefit (and so will you).
-Sarah Herrington is a full-time kids yoga teacher and writer living and working in Manhattan. She has completed several kid and teen yoga teacher trainings, through Karma Kids Yoga, MiniYogis, and YogaEd, and received her 200-hour Yoga Alliance certification through Yoga to the People, a donation-based studio influenced by the teachings of Bryan Kest. She has also studied at Laughing Lotus, Jivamukti and with Dharma Mittra. For the last two and half years she has taught roughly 25 children’s yoga classes a week, mostly in the NYC public school and charter school system. She has also created full, year-long yoga curriculums for use in public school. Sarah’s kids classes are infused with joy, fun, and exploration, and her Vinyasa style classes emphasize mindfulness, intention and breath. She can be found online at: SarahHerrington.com