If any other yoga instructor looked out at their class and saw one student singing, another two poses behind and a third staring back blankly, it would be a test of their mettle. But for Shari Vilchez-Blatt, it's all part of toddler yoga class, and a successful one at that.
"If I get four to five poses out of them, that's great!" chuckled the former advertising executive. "I start every [session] with a speech that says, 'Hey grownups, they're toddlers!' … I want to manage their expectations. This isn't an adult class."
When Vilchez-Blatt opened Karma Kids Yoga on West 14th Street in New York City 10 years ago, the studio offered only eight classes. Now it runs more than 100 per week, many in schools and day cares throughout the city. Toddler classes, for strong walkers to 3-year-olds, are among the studio's most popular and are offered daily -- a sign, Vilchez-Blatt said, that yoga for tots is no longer just a trend. Like tumbling, ballet and music class, toddler yoga is here to stay.
There are many aspects to a toddler session that a yoga purist would not recognize. The classes tend to be relatively short (45 minutes) and are frequently loud. Instructors lead children on imaginary trips to the zoo, the beach or outer space, and coax them into positions with the help of puppets and songs. Children and their parents typically sit together in a circle, and the sequencing of asanas is determined as much by the mood in the room as by anything else.
"It depends on what grabs the child at the moment," Vilchez-Blatt said. "In terms of the poses I tend to do, I tend to do down dog. I always do butterfly, I always do tree pose. But then if we take an 'adventure' to the farm, we'll be the animals they see.'"
Likewise, the goals that adults often associate with yoga -- increased strength and flexibility, and stress reduction -- are less clear when the students are 3 and under and tend to wobble. But instructors nonetheless have broad hopes for what yoga can provide its tiniest practitioners. Helen Garabedian, founder of Itsy Bitsy Yoga, said the practice can help toddlers learn to calm themselves by reaching and stretching their bodies and taking a mindful breath. It's also an engaging parent-child activity that gives young kids a chance to do something physical and get rewarded for it, she said.
"Parents today are always like, 'Sit here! Don't move! Don't run. Walk," said Garabedian. "This is a place where [toddlers] can move and be active and get rewarded for it through positive interactions."
Data on the possible health benefits of toddler yoga, as well its safety, is scant. A National Health Statistics report from 2007, the most recent available, found that 2.1 percent of children in the U.S. had done yoga in the previous 12 months, but did not parse the data further. There have been no major studies on outcomes among mini yogis.
"A toddler can't express to you what they're feeling -- they don't have the language skills or introspection to be able to comment on their quality of life," said Wendy Weber, a program officer in the division of extramural research at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
"We always recommend, before starting any new practice, that parents talk to a pediatrician and get a sense of what they think would be reasonable," Weber said.
If toddlers "aren't doing significant stretching where they could hurt themselves, that's probably okay," said Dr. Cora Breuner, a pediatrician and adjunct professor orthopedics and sports medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital. "Anything that's called 'gentle yoga' is, generally, extremely safe."
And unlike adults who sometimes try and force themselves into poses, which exposes them to injury, toddlers tend to self-police, Garabedian said.
"A toddler isn't going to put [himself] in a position that hurts," Garabedian said. "If something hurts, they immediately come out of it." That is why toddler-yoga teachers let their students come in and out of poses independently, at their own pace.
That is also why it takes a specific type of person to teach a toddler class. Elyse Rotondo, founder of Om Kids Yoga Center in Pawtucket, R.I., admitted she has struggled to find, train and keep instructors who really enjoy working with the age group.
"You have to be on for 45 minutes," Rotondo said. "We're talking, singing, dancing -- we have puppets. You have to keep their attention." She, too, has learned to temper her expectations, content to tell her students simply that "om" is "How we say 'hi' in yoga," and focusing more on self-confidence and gross motor skills than on precision.
"Our end goal is just that they love it," said Rotondo. "If they get 10 percent of what I'm doing, to me, that's successful."
Want to do yoga with your kids at home? Learn about 12 easy poses that they can do here. Plus, send photos of your toddlers and school-age kids doing their best poses to firstname.lastname@example.org -- and we'll add them to the slideshow here!