New York — In a bright pink studio five stories above ground, a group of 5-year-olds stretch on their bellies and pretend that they are fish.
Five minutes later they are crawling on all fours and barking like dogs. Later, while listening to soft music and draped in velvet blankets, yoga instructor Jodi Komitor rubs their feet with fragrant lotion while leading the group in the ancient art of shavasana, or meditation.
"Yoga for kids is so completely different from yoga for adults. It's very playful," explains Komitor.
Komitor has been practicing yoga since she was a teen-ager. She started her child-focused New York City studio, called Next Generation Yoga, three years ago after leaving a classroom teaching position.
The tradition of yoga has many physical, spiritual and dietary aspects even some adults have trouble grasping, but Komitor believes that having children practice yoga can be the calming, centering experience their busy lives need. She says she can start seeing a change in her students instantly.
"What yoga does for these kids is it's a balance between active poses and passive poses. It puts them in tune with their bodies," she says.
Parents say that children become organized and grounded after class. Komitor says it teaches them tools they can take on with them in life.
"You have ballet, you have jazz but how many of these kids actually take that and become a professional dancer? With yoga you don't become a professional but you can take the tools you learn into everyday life."
In a time of crisis, yoga can help children deal with anger and fear.
Lizmaya Santaliz, a yoga instructor at the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort in Puerto Rico, says her 7-year-old son Christian has used yoga to cope with his nightmares in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He had said he was angry and was having a hard time dealing with these new fears and emotions.
"He went into the water and did some Kunbalini yoga, which is an active kind of yoga," Santaliz says. "It helps deal with anger. Afterward, he said he felt better."
"The question isn't what happens when we do yoga, it's what happens when we don't do yoga," says Har Hari Khalsa, a chiropractor in Los Angeles. He practices yoga every morning with his three children ages 3, 7 and 11. "Doing yoga increases endorphins and makes you feel good," he says.
Sports and diet
Yoga can be a great activity for kids who may not have a lot of natural athletic ability because there is no competition. "There is no right or wrong way to do it. The way one person does a pose or posture is the perfect way for them," observes Santaliz.
But even if your child is a jock, the benefits of yoga can spill over into other sports. Janet Klaus is the mother of 13-year-old Zak, who plays hockey in Grand Rapids, Mich. "As a goalie he has to be flexible and he has to be able to do splits," Klaus explains. "Yoga helps him with that."
She says her son became involved in yoga after reading about some professional hockey players who work it into their regular routine because it fosters patience and the ability to sit still which are important traits for goalies who aren't always actively involved in the game but still needs the stamina of the other players.
Klaus also supports her son's interest in yoga because it builds his strength without making him use heavy weights. "Kids can get hurt if they lift weights too much when they're young," she says. "I like that I can see an improvement in his strength without using weights."
Diet also is a big part of the yoga lifestyle but Komitor doesn't preach it to the kids. There is a chapter in her book "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga With Kids" (Alpha Books) about nutrition, but she feels it is more important for "yoginis," kids who practice yoga, to understand the poses and the meditation first.
"My whole philosophy is give them love, acceptance, make them feel good and enjoy life," Komitor says. "I'm not going to harp on them to eat a vegetarian meal and by the way, no sugar. I'm very real with the kids."