Building a Family Yoga Practice

by Carol Greenhouse

The first time my daughter, Zoe, and I rolled out our mats in front of Family Yoga, a DVD that features renowned yoga teacher Rodney Yee, I expected my 6-year-old’s attention to wander. But 40 minutes later, as we relaxed in Savasana, her question revealed the shape of things to come: “Can we do this every day?”

Sure enough, six months later, Zoe and I are on our way to a shared practice that juices our bodies, our souls, and our relationship. And we’re not alone. Family yoga is taking off as parents discover the pleasures of practicing alongside their toddlers, pre-teens, and teens.

If you have yet to establish a home practice with your kids, the benefits might surprise you. “Family yoga can become a way of life,” says Amy Gabrielle Witmyer, owner of the Sacred Space Yoga and Wellness Center of West Orange, New Jersey, who has been practicing with her husband and their son, Juaquin, since the 9-year-old was in utero. These days, Juaquin assists in his mother’s classes and has his own daily practice. “Sometimes we find the three of us are just lying on the floor of the studio, talking, stretching, doing poses separately and together,” Amy says. “Maybe I’m doing vinyasa, I have my son hanging upside down, and my husband’s meditating. It brings a nice feeling of family time. And all of a sudden, my son tells us some story, he just opens up, because the opportunity is there.”

The rewards of a family practice are long-lasting, including not only well-documented benefits like increased concentration, muscle tone, and school performance, but also stronger bonds among family members and better social skills in the world at large. “If you have a good practice,” says Rodney, “you can’t help but take it off the mat.”

So how do you begin? That depends on your family. “Something can evolve differently every day. You don’t need to think, ‘This is the way a family yoga practice looks,’” says Rodney. Instead, just set aside time and vary the menu enough to keep everyone’s interest. “It can be, ‘Today, we’re going to put on Yoga for Beginners; tomorrow maybe we’re going to look at each other and do yoga poses. On Wednesday we’re going to do the primary series in Ashtanga all together. Thursday we’re going to do pranayama.’”

Kelly Campbell, who teaches yoga in Santa Monica, California, and practices with her husband and 4-year-old son, Everett, says the discipline has unquestionably enriched their lives. “We have a common language and way of moving that we can tap into,” Kelly says. “It isn’t rigid or set up in a dogmatic way; it’s just how we flow together as a family.” One example: When Everett is upset or hurt, his parents will ask him to find his yoga breath. “Many times,” says Kelly, “that is what will calm him down.”

Brett Avelin, a yoga instructor in Putney, Vermont, who practiced with his wife for hours each morning before the birth of their 2-year-old son, points out that creating the space and time to be present with one another as a family can be a sizable challenge. But he’s already looking at the other side of the balance sheet. “As kids age, they get into so many different things,” he says. “Maybe you can’t do football games or gymnastics meets alongside them, but you can share yoga with them as they grow up.” Otherwise, he points out, “How much of what we do is really together, rather than sitting together watching TV or playing video games?”

That brings up a key question: How can yoga compete against other enticements for children’s attention? How do we keep from having to insist our kids practice with us? The answer, veterans agree, is modeling. In the words of Laurice Nemetz, owner of the Wellness Bridge studio in Westchester County, New York, and mother of 8- and 11-year-old boys who practice with her: “For adults, we always say ‘Live your practice.’ That’s very much the same when you have kids. Modeling is the biggest way kids learn, both on the mat and off.” So if you’re charged up about unrolling your mat, it’s likely your children will be charged up about it, too, at least some of the time.

And if your own routine has faltered, says Rodney, start there. “Practice yourself. Then yoga becomes part of the furniture for the kids. When the household is studying something deeply, the walls are vibrating with that knowledge. So whenever people begin to practice yoga, all the people in the household are going to absorb some of that.”

What if you’ve never had a home practice? It’s never too late to start. In fact, some children will thrive on getting the moves down ahead of their parents. Don’t let it hold you back. Begin wherever you are.

“What we see as teachers all the time is that it’s too serious,” says Rodney. “When did we lose that playfulness kids have, which is one of the main ingredients to learning?” Take it back, he says. “Make it playful. Let the kids climb on you; hoist them up into handstands. Don’t set it up in such a way that they have to get it ‘right.’”

In other words, let the practice itself be perfection enough. “I was always afraid my son wouldn’t like yoga if I forced him to do it,” Amy says. “So I’m really hands-off. His practice isn’t ’perfect’ but I don’t correct him too much, because I don’t want to stifle the joy he has for yoga.”

Six months after our first Savasana, Zoe and I are expanding our repertoire withYoga Journal’s Yoga Step by Step DVD series about building a home practice. We’ve done Sun Salutations on mountaintops, and Zoe has taken classes with friends and loves to attend the otherwise adults-only Wednesday-night session in our town. The latest development? She wants us to film our own family yoga video. That should keep us busy—and practicing—for a while.

“Yoga is just a tool,” says Rodney. “But it can become the axis on which a family rotates.”

Carol Greenhouse, a longtime member of the Ode Magazine editorial team and former Outside Magazine staffer, has written about everything from children’s meditation to BASE parachute jumping in Malaysia to conceiving her daughter as a single parent.

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