I remember the first time one of my students peed on their yoga mat.
“Well,” I thought, “this situation isn’t one my teachers prepped me for in yoga teacher training.”
All yoga classes are filled with surprises. But chances are, yoga classes with kids and teens as students can be a little trickier to organize and navigate. Why are children of all ages more challenging to teach? There are many differences between kids’ yoga and adult yoga classes:
Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the extra effort to teach yoga to children. Children of all ages can benefit from connecting their minds and bodies through a guided practice. Kids and teens, especially, need quiet time-outs from all the mental stimulation that comes from social, academic, and emotional development.
Adults forget how much energy goes into growing up. Most young people suffer through feelings of overwhelm and confusion as they confront new inner-personal and intra-personal territories. They can find relief with short, fun yoga classes.
However, it’s critical that yoga teachers create plans for their classes with the age range in mind. What works for a 2 year old won’t work for an 8 year old, and what works for a 12 year old won’t work for an 18 year old.
What do you need to take into consideration when planning yoga classes for younger students? The most important thing for all age groups is to create a strong structure for your class. This means starting the class with a clear expectation that you share in a way that everyone understands.
Structure also means crafting your class with a beginning, middle, and end. You’ll need to do this for every class you teach, for adults or children, but it’s especially important to refine this skill with children. Since their attention span is less, they’ll need clues as to the class timeline. For example, you can schedule a one-minute-long deep-breath break halfway through every class.
Babies: 0-2 years old
The saying is true: You’re never too old—or too young—to practice yoga! But a class full of babies looks and feels very different than a class filled with senior citizens.
Babies are just starting to connect to their bodies, quite literally. Researchers have determined that most babies as young as 7 months are developed enough to understand the limits of their bodies compared to that of another. Touch and movement are important parts of this process.
Parents are often involved in baby yoga classes, and that’s a good thing. As a yoga teacher, you have a unique opportunity to provide guidance for parents, many of whom may be overwhelmed with the newfound parental responsibilities. Your class can be a peaceful oasis for moms and dads as well as babies.
If you lead a “Baby and Me” yoga class, make sure the parents understand they are going to be moving as well. Parents need to leave their egos, titles, and worries at the door. This is an opportunity for them to be a kid again!
Together, you can offer different poses for everyone to try. You may be surprised at a baby’s ability to pop up in to chakrasana, the wheel pose, or paschimottanasana, the seated forward fold. To see this, simply do the pose and then ask them to try. Babies are great at mirroring.
Like all humans, babies learn best from example. That’s why it’s so important for all adults in the room to play along. Singing songs, teaching the names of body parts, and integrating massage into your baby yoga class are therapeutic activities for everyone.
Of course, if a baby is distracted and prefers to do something else, let them. The demands for flexibility in structureis another big difference between kids’ yoga and adult yoga. Be open to the possibility that your carefully planned structure may vary quite dramatically!
Preschoolers: 2-3 years old
Once children become toddlers, they have different needs in a yoga class. You’ll always want to break up classes into age groupsso that you can provide the best instruction at each age. It’s the same as with adults: You need to meet your students where they are. In this case, we’re talking developmentally.
Creating structure while honoring inevitable deviations is a big part of teaching yoga to preschoolers. Set up the mats in a wide circle, but be prepared: It can be a challenge simply to keep each child on their own mat and focused on what you are teaching.
Classes should be no more than 30 minuteslong, and part of that time should be budgeted for the simple act of taking shoes on and off. They’ll need help. In regular yoga classes, the actual practice starts upon entry into the studio. The way you sign in, remove shoes, and roll out your mat is all important transition time. Same goes for preschoolers.
Once they are on their mats, do not expect this age group to be still! Quite the opposite: Embrace the exuberant energythat is percolating in these little bodies. Get them moving, and keep them moving throughout class. While everyone is trying out poses, go easy on alignment. Toddler bodies are a lot more bendy and resilient than adult bodies.
This age group also is learning rapidly through mirroring and adult examples, so you’ll need to enthusiastically be on your mat engaging in the movement. This is very much unlike adult classes, where yoga teachers frequently wander around the class watching for needed adjustments. Participate in the entire practice.
It’s also not a bad idea to have a teacher or a few parents in the classwith you as support. They need to have their own mats and participate in the class, but they can also assist if one of your students prefers to run around. They can be helpful in limiting distractions and keeping the other children focused.
Early Elementary: 4-6 years old
Once children graduate preschool and begin elementary school, they have developed a stronger sense of self. This means they may be more engaged in a yoga class—or they’re clearer on their lack of interest.
As a yoga teacher for early elementary students, you may feel like you are herding cats at times! How you handle this is part of your yogic practice as well. Remember, children are paying attention especially when we are not. This means that you are mirroring not just poses but how to react with love and grace when things aren’t exactly going as planned.
Create expectations for these students regarding the time it takes to remove shoes and line them upnicely along a wall. They’re independent enough to perform this task themselves, and they’ll appreciate you treating them like the “big” girls and boys they are.
As class begins, it’s sometimes wise to start with some silliness to release a little extra energy. Children this age love challenges! Who can hold tree pose the longest? What about plank pose? Counting out loud is a great example of integrating other basic lessons into yoga class.
You can also bring in more games and songs. Search music sharing sites for children’s yoga songs for inspiration, or write your own! To vary lessons, you can add in some craft time. Having print outs of coloring pages, for example, may be a popular addition to class.
Of course, you also will want to introduce the idea of quiet time for these young students. Offer a
child’s pose in the middle of class, and always end with a short savasana. And I mean short! At this age, if you can get a minute of stillness, you deserve a kids’ yoga teacher medal.
Late Elementary: 7-11 years old
There are a lot of heartwarming moments that come from teaching yoga to children of all ages, but you’ll be sure to get a lot of hugs and smiles from late elementary-aged students. Throughout these classes, make sure you laugh a lot. A sure-fire way to get frustrated with younger students is to be too serious.
At this age, especially, kids love to help. Work with this by spending a little time of your class setting up the mats and cleaning them off after class. If you are using weighted bean bags, blocks, straps, balls or other props in class, reward focused children (or engage less-focused ones) with helpful task opportunities.
Again, with this age group, you need to stay creative and keep everyone moving. This includes meditation. Late elementary students are able to pay attention to instructions a little better, so you can go through a moving meditation or more in-depth games.
Tell a story about a walk in the woods or a day on the farm, while weaving in poses with names that fit the story theme. Ask children to share their favorite animal. If there is no corresponding pose, have them make up a pose that could be named after that animal. Be prepared with an especially goofy answer for yourself! What would giraffe-asana look like?
Children in this age group also respond really well to positive reinforcement. Sing their praises to keep them on track, and reward your students throughout the time they’re in your class. Have a basket of small flowers. Or, you could make plastic beaded mala prayer bead bracelets as gifts (older kids can make their own). Then once everyone is sporting their bracelet, you can teach malasana.
Another popular surprise for children of all ages in yoga classes is essential oils. Use aromatherapy to your advantage by including lavender and other scents into your class. I liked diluting lavender in a small water bottle and spraying “magic mist” over children as they lie in savasana. Be sure to get permission, of course.
As a yoga teacher for children, you are helping them learn tools for managing their emotions. Show them how empowering it is to take deep breaths while fingering their beads, smell a nice scent, or go into child’s pose for a minute. Even as adults, we forget this power! Starting young with teachings will engrain these healthy emotional and mental self-care practices.
Pre-Teens: 11-13 years old
Pre-teens are wonderful yoga students, because they are fun-loving and silly but also enjoy being treated as adults. This is where you as a teacher can shine by expressing clear expectationsfor what grown-ups do in yoga classes.
These older children are able to focus even better, so it’s possible to create some fun playliststhat can serve as background music. Playing relaxing music for kids’ yoga offers the same psychological cue as with adult yoga classes: Students hear the music and know it’s time to calm down.
At this age, you can also begin to incorporate some other elements of yoga teachings. Pranayama, or breathwork, can be extremely effectivewith pre-teens. Offer nadi shodhana, or alternative nostril breathing, and be amazed at how focused and still your class with become. If everyone is rowdy upon entry, try sitali, the cooling breath.
You can also weave in storiesthat are shared in the yogic spiritual texts. Hanuman, the monkey god, jumped across the sea from India to Sri Lanka to save Ram’s wife, Sita. It’s cute, engaging tale that teaches the importance of selfless service. What’s more, understanding the story connects why a split is called Hanumanasana. Bring printed pictures of Hanuman, Ganesh, and any other character used to tell the story.
Of course, some studios, classrooms, and community centers are careful about religious lessons. Yoga is not a religion, and the lessons that come with our connection to our highest self can be confusing to many. This is especially true with young students, so tread gently with more complex topics.
As a teacher, if you choose to share the stories of, say, Arjuna and Krishna, let your students know that they have the power to believe and think anything they wish. Still, if you’re teaching the simple balance pose of Krishnasana, you might as well share that it’s named after a flute-playing god with blue skin and the entire universe in his mouth. Yoga’s pretty cool sometimes!
Teenagers: 13-18 years old
It goes without saying that some teenagers can flourish in a more adult environment than others. Few yoga teachers will offer teen-only classes, because some do just fine in adult classes. For the others, though, you’ll need to modify your classes to meet their needs.
Most importantly, you’ll want to lighten up with teensin your class. While they’re just starting to experience the stresses of adult life, teens appreciate laughter as much as times of relaxation. Try adding in goofy poses like lion pose, which involves sticking out your tongue and crossing your eyes as you look at a third-eye drishti. Yell “timber!” if someone falls over in tree pose. Make the class fun.
With older children, you can incorporate more spiritual lessons, meditation, and breathwork. In fact, vary your class significantlyso they can stay engaged. One week, try a restorative class with plenty of bolsters and eye pillows. The next week, kick it up a notch with a fast-paced, vinyasa yoga class. Let your students see that yoga classes—like everything on the path toward a mind-body connection—can come in all shapes and sizes.
Speaking of shapes and sizes, teens are also often bombarded about messaging regarding their own bodies. Yoga is a powerful resource for teaching body acceptance. As a teacher, offer plenty of cues that let students know it’s just fine that bodies move in different ways, look, and feel differently.
Honor their own individuality. For example, when starting a class with gentle neck stretches, remind your students that they’re the only ones who know when their shoulders are tight. By teaching deep breathing techniques, you can share the power to release the stress locked in their muscles. Teens want to be independent, and being responsible for their own bodies is an important part of that.
At the beginning of teen classes, ask your students what’s going on in their bodies. Ask them how they feel, and if there are any body parts they’d like to focus on. Be prepared for some blank stares at first. They may have never been asked about their body, except when they’re reporting an injury. This basic lesson of body awarenesscan stay with them for the rest of their lives.
This is also why journaling is an excellent additionto teen yoga classes. If you are organizing a series of teen classes or are working within the structure of a school, make sure each student has their own journal. At the beginning and end of each class, ask them to spend a few minutes writing down how they feel. Ask them to inventory their breath, bodies, and mind. By writing it down, they can see the changes.
Ready to begin or expand your yoga classes for children of all ages? You’ll need to find students, and that takes specific marketing initiatives. Try these ideas:
Finally, while it’s not necessary, you may also wish to consider enrolling in a specialized training for yoga teachers who want to work with children. Even sitting in on classes with more experienced teachers can help you navigate some of the trickier parts of a kids’ or teen yoga class.
In addition, you can study prenatal yoga, which is an obvious complementary class that involves additional understanding to avoid injury. The more you read, learn, and study about yoga for all ages, the faster you’ll be able to specialize your efforts and become an expert. Soon, you’ll enjoy a steady stream of classes filled with some of the most exuberant, loving students you’ll ever have.
Best of all, you’ll know that your teachings will help little ones grow into their highest, best selves starting at the earliest ages. That’s a blessing to parents and the rest of your community, too.