When Jodi the Yogi said “Criss-Cross Apple Sauce”, these tots knew what was coming.
Seven toddlers sat tall and cross-legged on colorful mats, leaning forward with eager eyes. Behind them, parents imitated their movements, ready to follow their children into a world of imagination and discovery.
“Did you bring your hands to the park?” asked Jodi the Yogi, whose real name is Jodi Epstein. The children waved back in response.
A few deep breaths of Astoria Park air and the children were ready for the first song, “Tick-Tock, Little Yoga Clock”. The parents sang along as they stretched out their legs and arms alongside their children, swaying from side to side.
Soon, the sounds of the cars rushing by on Robert F. Kennedy Bridge faded away and the children were swept into Epstein’s story.
In 2012, 20.4 million Americans practiced yoga, up almost 30 percent since 2008, according to the Yoga Journal. More and more centers are popping up across the country and the trend is trickling down to children.
“There are definitely more studios,” said Zhana Galjasevic, director of The Yoga Room, where Epstein teaches. “I think the number [in New York] has quadrupled.”
Galjasevic opened the first yoga center in Astoria in 2003, aiming to create a community feel. The center has two locations, one in Astoria and one in Long Island City and offers classes to people of all ages. She added prenatal, baby and toddler classes so that the Yoga Room could provide for their community at all stages of life.
Epstein began teaching there in 2011. She was first exposed to yoga by her mother, who was a yoga instructor. After completing a training course at Karma Kids Yoga in 2009, she began to teach children.
“As I worked with kids, the kids would teach me,” Epstein said. “I’ve been so inspired.”
Studies show that yoga has many physical and psychological benefits for both children and adults. It has been used to help people with disabilities, prisoners, and people dealing with the stresses of everyday life.
For children, Epstein said, stress can develop when they are unable to express themselves. And the world can be an intimidating place for little ones. In addition to relaxing the mind, yoga helps children learn more about their bodies, especially at an early stage of development. More and more schools around New York are incorporating yoga as part of their physical education and extra-curricular activities.
“Yoga, I would consider as one more modality in the toolbox of child development,” said Dr. Susan E. Klepper, a physical therapist and assistant professor at Columbia University. Yoga is “about sensory awareness and spatial awareness, and that’s important for kids. They learn a lot about themselves and there’s a lot of fun in it.”
Jennifer Batson, of Astoria, also teaches at the Yoga Room. When her daughter, Riley, was eight weeks old, she began to take mommy and baby classes. Now that Riley is two, they join in Epstein’s toddler yoga.
“[Riley’s] made some wonderful friends and learned a lot from how to count using her fingers to using her foot as a ‘foot-phone’,” said Batson. She said they do breathing exercises “when she’s upset and unable to communicate why she’s unhappy, as well as before bed when she’s still wound up and needs to calm down for sleep”.
But it’s not always easy for Epstein to keep young children’s attention for the span of her class. When a small girl ran from her mat, plastic zebra in mouth, Epstein’s exciting rhythm and flow caught the girl’s attention and lured her back in. She plopped down next to Epstein and watched, wide-eyed.
Epstein hopes to bring her songs and classes to children through television networks. She already has a Web site, where some of her songs can be found. In the coming months, she will begin fundraising so that she can pitch her idea at the Kidscreen Summit in February. Through this project she hopes to make yoga more accessible to all children.
Between the Jodi the Yogi project and the classes she teaches, Epstein has a tight schedule. But she still manages to make time to meditate and practice her own yoga every day.
“I have to, or my mind starts to get muddled,” she said. “I’m not as present, I’m not as open.”
This leaves Epstein refreshed and ready for her classes, where she likes to take children on imaginative adventures. Their chosen mode of transport proves that as early as three years, these children are true New Yorkers.
“Our taxi drived far away!” called out one little boy, as the class prepared to dive into the yoga world. “Our taxi drived to China!”
Jodi the Yogi had the solution. Placing her foot to her ear, she called the taxi back to New York. Then, Epstein, the parents and the children zoomed off to the forest to become monkeys and trees, backs upright and limbs outstretched.