On a recent Tuesday evening when the temperature outdoors was teetering in single digits, Kyla De Dios of Fort Wayne was indoors teetering on one leg.
She was trying to master yoga’s tree pose, pulling her right foot up to meet her knee but without much success. On her second try, she lost her balance and fell over.
Not to worry. It was only a short distance to the floor.
That’s because Kyla, with a pink bow in her brown hair and a rainbow-striped top with a fuzzy white dog applique on the front, is 4 years old.
At area yoga studios, classes for tiny aspiring practitioners are proliferating. De Dios was learning her moves at the southwest location of Pranayoga at 10329 Illinois Road where Amber Pape and Hayley Sonnigsen teach the younger set at 6 p.m. each Tuesday and Thursday.
At Simply Yoga, 918 Woodland Plaza Run, a Saturday morning class for ages 4 to 11 has been in session for about two months, says studio owner Christa Smith. The Powers of One studio, 1511/2 N. Main St., Roanoke, plans to begin classes soon, likely on alternate Saturday mornings, according to instructor Stacey Dell.
"I just think it’s good for kids," Smith says of yoga. "It’s not like a sport. It’s not competitive. But it’s still active. You’re moving your body and stretching, and there is the mental/emotional part of it, too, that’s good for kids."
Sonnigsen says yoga classes for children differ from those for adults.
"We use typical movements but we change the names. ... We don’t use the Sanskrit names," she explains. "We don’t do as many things that are weight-bearing because children’s frames aren’t built to bear heavy loads."
But children as young as Kyla are introduced to simple movement sequences, she says, and many learn them quickly. The Tuesday night class, for example, had attendees moving through the well-known downward-facing-dog posture to ones called "scared cat" and "happy cat," among others.
Dell, who has taught yoga to preschoolers, says when working with children it’s important to inject a little fun into class. Still, classes aren’t just unstructured playtime, she says.
"With kids, it’s not perfect alignments. It’s like ‘Let’s move our bodies and enjoy our bodies.’ And let’s be conscious of our breath and learn some good principles for life."
In a time when many child experts and parents are concerned about childhood obesity and inactivity, yoga "teaches them that they can have fun moving their bodies, rather than sitting still and watching kids on TV moving their bodies," Dell adds. "Kids like moving around. It’s just that we aren’t giving them (enough) opportunities for it."
Sonnigsen, whose 8-year-old son, Nolan, regularly attends classes at Pranayoga, says many studies show yoga benefits children. Areas under study have been its impact on grades, attention span, listening skills, self-esteem and stress, she says.
Area instructors say yoga teachers are also starting to specialize in yoga for children with special needs – from physical disabilities to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, autism, learning disabilities and Down syndrome. Some work with children in foster care or homeless shelters who have a range of emotional issues.
"A lot of places have yoga programs in public schools, and they’ve tracked the benefits. It’s something I would like to see more of it in our public schools here," Sonnigsen says.
Smith says she thinks yoga helps stressed and overstimulated children reset their inner thermostats.
"I just think there are so many distractions now," she says, from cellphones "that go off constantly" to academic pressure in school and from peers. "There’s so much stimulation that goes on that to take kids out of that for a time is important."
Many area yoga studios offer classes for children at the same time as classes for adults so families can participate together. Kyla’s mom, Aileen De Dios, 33, had class in a nearby room.
As a mother of two active preschoolers, she says she’s helped by the strength and flexibility the practice brings her, and adds: "I hope it will help reduce the stress."
Dell, a mother of three, says she got started teaching yoga to kids because she wanted to share the activity with her own children.
"The little ones love the animal poses, and they like making the noises," she says. "One of the best ones is the lion’s breath. You take a big breath and stick your tongue out, and you roar," she says. "Sometimes we stamp around like dinosaurs or do monkey poses.
"And there’s nothing cuter than a bunch of kids pretending to be (downward) dogs," Dell says, "wagging their tails and shaking their butts in the air."