Komitor's students at Next Generation Yoga will become sleeping doggies, lions and snakes before the 45-minute session is over. They will walk on their hands and feet with their butts in the air, balance on one leg and sit chanting "Om." Similar menageries are sprouting up across the country. With the zeal of the newly converted, baby boomers are introducing their children to yoga on the apparent theory that balanced lives begin with balanced children. And with their easy flexibility and willing imaginations, kids are proving natural yogis.
YogaKids, an organization in Michigan City, Ind., that certifies adults to teach yoga to children, expects to graduate 35 teachers this year, compared with only 25 in the past three years. YogaKids, a video tutorial created by that group's founder, Marsha Wenig, has sold 80,000 copies since 1996. And the shelves are filling with books touting the technique for kids of all ages, from "Yogababy" to "I Can't Believe It's Yoga for Kids."
The American Yoga Association can't quite believe it either. Alice Christensen, the association's president, scoffs that marketing yoga to kids is a distinctly American phenomenon, and she is firmly opposed to children under the age of 16 doing asanas (yoga positions). "Yoga exercise brings on hormonal changes," she says. "Children should not practice it because it affects their growth system." There are no studies supporting that contention, but Christensen says there has not been enough time to assess yoga's long-term damage to young bodies. Hogwash, counter instructors like Marita Gardner-Anopol, who teaches yoga at preschools and elementary schools in New Jersey. "Does ballet interfere with natural changes in the body? Skiing? Ice skating?" says Gardner-Anopol. "Come on. Children are active from the time they are three."
In fact, most children take yoga in addition to other sports. Solomon Powell, 15, says his yoga classes in Los Angeles which include headstands, handstands and rigorous standing poses have improved his skills in basketball. Chandler Taslitz, 7, takes ballet and jazz dance as well as yoga. "When I get wound up and crazy it helps me to be quieter and relaxed," she says. Her friend Ellery Garland adds that yoga has helped her focus on her homework.
Yoga enthusiasts contend that its meditational tools can be particularly helpful to kids with learning or behavioral difficulties. The breathing exercises, for example, are touted as a natural relaxant for children with attention-deficit disorder, and the asanas are used by some instructors to strengthen the muscles of children with Down syndrome. Marlene Mikell, who teaches severely disabled children at a Chicago public school, asserts that yoga improves the self-esteem of her students. "There is no competition, no perfection, just total self-expression," she says. "The children can be an eagle or a mountain or greet the sun." Kemesha Adkins, a sophomore at a public school for high-risk kids in West Hollywood, fell behind in her grades after leaving her troubled home for foster care; she found yoga helped her cope. "I can let out all my anger through the different poses," she says. "Yesterday I went home crying. Then I started doing the exercises, and it calmed me down."
Yoga allows kids a much needed time out. Near the end of Chandler's class in a Chicago suburb, eight students adopt shavasana (literally "corpse pose"). Covered in woven blankets, they lie on their backs with their eyes closed while the CD "Tao of Healing" plays in the background. "Envision a cloud floating down next to you," says their teacher Ilene Sang. "Envision a place that brings you happiness. It might be a zoo, a garden or a beach. Go on a journey, and I'll tell you when to come back." Within 10 minutes, three students are sound asleep.