COLUMBIA — Robin Crouch is 7 years old and has already been practicing yoga for four years.
Her mom, Shannon Hensley, said she likes the non-competitive aspect of the practice and believes it keeps her daughter centered.
When Robin is upset, Hensley said the two of them will practice relaxation breathing techniques.
"This really calms Robin down," Hensley said.
Robin takes classes with Susan Mathis, a former early childhood educator who owns both alleyCat Yoga and Yoga to Grow.
Mathis, 44, began Yoga to Grow in 2006 to provide a way for kids to feel strong and powerful and to connect to their own bodies. Classes in the studio at 23 S. Fourth St. are arranged by age group, from infants to teens, and geared to their developmental stages.
Mathis adapted her passion for yoga to children by developing classes around songs, stories and games. She teaches them classic poses like dog and frog, as well as poses designed for children, such as rainbow (side plank for adults) and polar bear (a modified child's pose).
In each class, she incorporates play, imagination, breathing, laughter and relaxation.
"As I began to get more and more into practicing yoga myself, I had a lot of interest in seeing the benefits that the practice of yoga could have for kids," she said.
More than 1.5 million children were practicing yoga in 2006, according to the National Health Interview Survey.
A number of studies have shown that yoga can have powerful benefits for children.
A study presented at the annual meeting of the National Association of School Psychologists in 2005 reported that yoga promotes self-control, attention, concentration, body awareness and stress reduction.
From 2002-2003, researchers at California State University, Los Angeles, studied kindergarten through eighth-grade students learning yoga at an inner-city school. Researchers found it improved behavior, physical health, self-esteem and academic performance.
Laura Santangelo White of Boston Collegepublished the report "Yoga for Children" in the Pediatric Journal during the fall of 2009 that concluded: "The increased awareness of the potential benefits of yoga for children has resulted in school programs that address stress and anxiety by treating the body and the mind.
"Emphasis on individual abilities rather than competition makes yoga appropriate for all children."
Organizing by age group, activity
Months after they are born, children can be enrolled in Yoga to Grow classes. There is a class for babies who are mobile and one for babies who are not yet walking.
A class for both mommies and babies capitalizes on the attachment between them and builds on the baby's exploration of movement. A parent/child class helps develop a toddler's new motor skills.
From age 3-6, children are engaged with play, imagination, songs and stories. From 6-10, they spend class time on games and relaxation. Tween and teen yoga is a transition to adult yoga, with an emphasis on self-esteem and self expression.
Mathis teaches both the 3-6 and 6-10 age groups. All of her classes involve elements of co-creating to allow children to have a hand in planning the class to meet their body's needs. For the older group, she said, the big debate between them is whether headstands and handstands will be included.
Her class for the 3-6 age group typically begins with play time or arts and crafts. Then each child picks out a pose to practice in class that day.
Each day's practice begins with warm up, then breath work, sun salutations (a series of graduated poses) yoga songs, stories and games and finally relaxation or savasana.
Mathis weaves yoga poses into stories. She tells the story of a bird living in a tree on a mountain, for example. People come and begin to "chop through the mountain" after discovering gold.
The bird goes to the rain cloud for help and the cloud creates a storm that scares the people, causing them to promise never to hurt the mountain again.
As she is telling the story, Mathis asks the children to move into poses — mountain, tree and bird.
Inside the yoga studio with young children
At the beginning of a recent class, Violet Sieli, 4, was working on a crafts project while Charly Crouch, also 4, and Lily Finkel, 3, built train tracks together.
After putting the toys away, they were asked to choose a favorite mat and yoga pose.
Violet picked a purple mat and the rainbow pose. She posted a picture of a rainbow next to her name on a bulletin board in the studio that listed the class line-up. Charly chose a green mat, and Lily grabbed a blue one.
Mathis then guided them to their mats and began the session.
"What are the three rules of class?" she asked them.
The three children repeated after her: "Stay on your mat." "The mat stays on the ground." "Be kind to your friends."
The class then started with a warmup and breathing exercises, followed by sun salutations. Midway through the class, Mathis told the children: "Let's do Violet's rainbow pose now."
The rainbow pose looks a lot like a side plank in adult classes. The children lay on their sides, lifted their bodies from the floor and balanced on one hand and one foot. Their other hands reached for the sky.
It was easy to see why Violet had chosen this pose. The expression on her face showed both concentration and ease as she held the pose for a few seconds.
Mathis then practiced balance by asking the children to dance with stuffed animals on their heads.
Class wound down with relaxation time as the three children wrapped themselves in a blanket like a "burrito" and closed their eyes. Mathis talked them through a beach scene where seagulls eat birdseed from their palms.
A candle lit at the front of the class reminded the children that there is a light inside everyone. Mathis extinguished the candle to send the light out to the world, and the kids collectively gave the salutation, namaste
"Susan knows how to really engage the kids," Hensley said. "I love the body image, strength and confidence that comes along with practicing the poses."
Aaron Finkel recently began sending his 3-year-old daughter, Lily, to Mathis's class. He said he appreciates the health aspects yoga offers, as well as the practice of listening and following directions.
Mathis was an early childhood educator for 18 years with Parents as Teachers, working with babies, preschoolers, kindergartners and children with special needs.
She began practicing yoga about 11 years ago on her own with books and CDs. After about a year of practicing on her own, she made the trip to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Healthin the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
Upon her return to Columbia, she began taking classes at alleyCat Yoga. Practicing yoga in a class setting was a life-changing experience, she said, one that shifted her focus to breath work, meditation and relaxation.
She discovered that yoga gave her a better sense of her own body, which piqued her interest in seeing how yoga could help children develop a better sense of their own bodies.
She received her certification through Radiant Child Yoga and Yoga Kids and is also a Registered Kripalu Yoga Teacher.
Mathis began teaching classes for children at alleyCat Yoga and in public schools in 2006. In 2011, alleyCat Yoga moved to its current location on South Fourth Street, and Mathis became the owner.
She said she wants to continue to offer more classes and involve more people in yoga.
"It's all about exploring and figuring out how your body will move, and figuring out how you can quiet your body and what you can do with your energy when you have it," she said.
Her next yoga sessions for children begin the week of Oct. 17.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.