Exercise & Fitness

Diary of a Children’s Yoga Newcomer

Childrens-Yoga-Kansas-City

Jennifer Hornbaker investigates a yoga class geared toward a fledgling bunch and shares her observations with those of us more young at heart than body.

It’s tough being a kid these days.

Marilyn Pace became a yoga convert after tearing her hamstring during a walk. An ex-ballerina, Pace fell in love with the body awareness that yoga required and the combination of strength and flexibility it fosters.

For many, that statement elicits an eye roll and stories that begin with, “When I was a kid…” But regardless of one’s opinions on the relative difficulties of childhood today versus yesteryear, there’s no denying that growing up presents new and formidable challenges. In particular, the transition between elementary and middle school—that period when the mean kids adjust their tactics from dumping sand on innocent victims at recess to behind-the-back social warfare—requires a sense of humor and some fortitude.

Former third grade teacher Marilyn Pace is no stranger to the burdens of schoolchildren. With 20 years at Westwood View serving as her fieldwork, Pace has drawn upon her two passions, teaching and yoga, to help youngsters navigate the endless stream of homework, soccer games, piano lessons and sleepovers that makes up their lives.

“Yoga is about mind, body, and heart,” she says. “It helps you stay focused on a task, it helps you feel good in your body, and it helps you feel good in your heart. That’s sustainable for the lifetime. It’s a time to just shut everything out, and it builds community with these kids. I think it’s important to offer that early on.”

A year and a half after holding her first children’s yoga class in her home studio, Pace now conducts sessions for all ages, kindergarten through high school. Every class is full, including the fourth through sixth grade session that I’ve come to observe.

Considering that the attention span of most 10-year-olds I know does not make it through an entire song on the radio, much less an hour-long yoga session, I had assumed children’s yoga would be free-for-all playtime, with the use of yoga mats qualifying the activity as “yoga.” How wrong I was; Pace’s educator background does not lie dormant in her yoga instruction.

Her class strikes a balance between structure and freedom, completely captivating her audience for a full 60 minutes. “I actually make up a lesson plan for each of my classes,” she says.

The afternoon begins with participants seated calmly on their mats. Pace reminds them to inhale deeply with crisp imagery: “No bunny breathing.” The class opens with a warm-up sun salutation song—to the tune of what else but “Yankee Doodle.” A battery of fancy yoga terms comprises the lyrics, yet the children don’t miss even a single pose.

Next comes a group activity that resembles a creative writing class as much as it does yoga. Partners receive a handful of cards, each with the name and illustration of a yoga pose on it, such as crow pose or arrow pose. Students work together to construct a short story from their card selection, their efforts culminating in performances of their narratives.

Just as I’m marveling at the students’ rapt attention to detail, Pace’s announcement that it’s headstand time multiplies their excitement twofold. Marking off three spaces against the wall to use for support, she cautions that this activity will require turn-taking. “Now which three want to go first?” she inquires. All hands shoot into the air.

The mini yogis’ enthusiasm for headstands is surpassed only by their adoration of something called shavasana. It doesn’t take long to figure out why this practice is overwhelmingly the most popular part of the class. With the lights dimmed and soft music playing, the children lie down on their mats. Once they have attained a purposeful, deep breathing, Pace circulates to gently rub down shoulders with scented oil. To close, Pace whispers, “Everyone take one more deep breath of gratitude for all the good energy in the room.” With a synchronized sigh, class is over.

While the children gently stir from their meditative states, I can’t help noticing how refreshed I feel just from watching. “It invigorates you in a different way,” says Lisa Silverman, whose daughter, Hirut, attends Pace’s class regularly and occasionally even runs through some poses at home. “It establishes spiritual discipline. It gives the body a physical outlet but also instills mindfulness and peace. The benefits are far-reaching, and I think they will continue to be revealed over time.”

For more information about Children’s Yoga, visit the Children’s Yoga Kansas City Facebook page.