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Yoga for babies and toddlers

Yoga is increasingly popular during pregnancy, and many mums-to-be find it's an ideal form of gentle exercise as they approach their due dates - but you may not realise that your new baby can benefit from yoga classes too.

Even quite young babies can enjoy yoga which is often combined with baby massage, and some teachers offer mother and baby classes which you can enjoy together.

We spoke to yoga teacher, Natasha Harding, who explains all about yoga for kids and about a new yoga app she's created just for parents who want to introduce their children to yoga.

How early can children start yoga classes?

I've been teaching yoga for just over six years now and teach pregnancy yoga, babies, children and adults. Many women discover yoga for the first time when they're pregnant and find they really enjoy it - and then they're keen to continue with classes once their baby is born.

Baby yoga is suitable for little ones from just six weeks old (as long as they've had their six week check from the doctor) and includes lovely stretches for the baby and some massage - with lots of songs and rhyme. Babies can usually attend classes until they're crawling but it depends on their nature. I've taught some right through to 14 months old because they were more than happy to just lie there and enjoy! The classes are lovely for mum as well as it's time just for her and her baby - without phones, tablets and the telly!

Children can join a yoga class for kids from about two - and I've taught children of all different ages, but generally the children's classes are suitable up to seven. I taught in a nursery for a long time and had groups of children from two years old. You have to engage them to keep their interest and I used lots of yoga songs and games to do this. Also it's important to keep classes shorter!

How does it benefit them at such an early age?

For babies it's a wonderful time with mum (or dad) and yoga can ease colic, constipation, tummy ache and help babies to sleep well. Many mums used to love the class as they knew their little ones would sleep for at least an hour afterwards.

As children get older it helps them with body and spatial awareness, and also helps to maintain their flexibility. You'd be surprised how quickly children stiffen up and I've taught many, many children who can't touch their toes by the time they're six. Their hamstrings really tighten when they start school because they're sitting down all the time.

Being flexible can really help with injuries too, so if you've got a child who does lots of sport, the tendency is that their muscles become shorter and tighter which makes them stiff and more prone to injuries. Equally, you may have a child who's not naturally sporty and yoga gives them the opportunity to do something physical that is non-competitive. I taught a little boy for about three years and his mum said yoga changed his life because it was something he was good at and gave him confidence in lots of areas of his life. It's lovely to hear.

Are yoga classes for children very different from adult classes?

Yes. For a start they're shorter and you have to go with the feel of the class - generally adults do what you say, but sometimes that's not the case with kids. There have been classes I've gone to with an idea in my mind and realised 'that's not going to work today' so have totally changed my lesson to accommodate the students!

Generally classes for children are faster, and movement, rhyme and songs all feature heavily.

Don't you end up with lots of toddlers running about rather than doing what they're meant to be doing?

You'd be surprised but no! If you engage with them from the start and are enthusiastic about what you're doing, they will copy you and join in.

Have you found that children really enjoy the classes?

Definitely. It's like anything - you're not going to please everyone all the time but I've always had a very positive response.

Do many of them carry on with classes as they get older?

Yes and that's the part I love most. I've got a few students whose mums were in my pregnancy yoga classes, then they came to baby yoga, toddler classes and now as older children. It's wonderful.

My little boy Zak is six and attends adult classes now once a week and gets really upset if he misses one.

What do you think are the most important things children get from doing yoga?

Body awareness, flexibility and strength - and a sense of calm. They learn the connection between body and breath, which is a vital skill for the whole of their lives. When I teach older children the part they often love the best is the relaxation at the end - with children I'll read them a short relaxing story, where they'll imagine they're lying on a beach or walking through a field and afterwards the children are so calm and relaxed. It's wonderful to witness.

Can you tell us about your new Yoga app for kids?

Over the years many of the parents have asked if I can do a DVD or give them some moves they can practice with their children which sowed a seed. Once I got the idea in my head I thought an animated yoga app would be brilliant as it's tapping into new technology which appeals to children - but also keeping hold of something very traditional. I wanted to create something original, bright and fun. The inspiration for the name is obviously after my little boy Zak and because I didn't want to isolate any little girls Zelda was born!

So far I've released Zak and Zelda Wake Up and Zelda Go to Bed and there will be Zak and Zelda Christmas Day coming out on the 1st December.

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