"Taxi, taxi!" yelled small children in a Tuesday morning Parent & Child class at Karma Kids Yoga. They sat on scaled-down mats arranged in a circle. Having completed tree poses to represent the woods, two sisters and their mom hailed cabs by leaning side to side waving their hands. Nora, 3, announced they had arrived at the Bronx Zoo. But Lily, 18 months, preferred marching on a stack of mats.
"That's okay," said the teacher. "You're a toddler. You can't pay attention all the time."
But when the instructor pulled out a penguin puppet, both children ran over to feed it pretend snacks.
"At that age, they believe the puppet is real," said Shari Vilchez-Blatt, founder and director of Karma Kids. "We always say goodbye to the puppet so that there's closure. Otherwise, they worry about what happened to their friend."
Instead of savasana, the kids lay on mats with their heads on pillows. Even Lily stayed still as the teacher rubbed lotion on her feet. Her mother looked relieved.
Vilchez-Blatt started Karma Kids in 2003, recently moving from 14th Street to its present location on 23rd Street. In her former career as an advertising director, she had researched children's play to develop toys and games. She said toddlers are strong visual learners who gain from experiences like smelling and going on adventures. They love repetition.
"They learn many things at that age," said Vilchez-Blatt, who practices with her own daughter. "They learn sociability, fine motor skills and gross motor skills, how to take a breath. They learn body parts and develop confidence. I tell parents that within 24 to 36 hours, new students may repeat something from the class that they saw. At dinner, they may do a tree pose or sing a song."
Lauren Chaitoff, co-owner of Yogi Beans, dives into her theater background to engage students. As the mother of two-year-old Vivienne, Chaitoff said yoga can help toddlers self-regulate their emotions.
"It must be hard to be two," Chaitoff said. "They understand everything, but they can't express it. I tell them, 'When we are feeling angry or sad, we can take deep breaths.'"
On Vivienne's second birthday, Chaitoff said her daughter grabbed her father's cell phone.
"We're trying to limit screen time," Chaitoff said. "So I said, 'Mommy has her yoga mat out. Do you want to practice yoga with me?' She got out her little yoga mat. We start off by ringing a bell, which slows her down because she has to stop and listen to it. Yoga has really helped her coordination, confidence, and familiarity with what her body can do. The poses are named after animals, so when she does downdog, she is really a dog. Imagination is so vast at that age. They have that beginner's mind, which is a really fun place to be. I teach adults too and am influenced by kids. There's a lightness when I practice and when I teach. I'm serious about the practice, but it's not called 'perfect,' it's called practice. With kids, we're not looking for Iyengar alignment. The goal is to make the kids feel good."
Like Vilchez-Blatt at Karma Kids, Chaitoff reminds parents that toddlers have short attention spans. Two year olds experience yoga on their own terms, picking up more than parents realize, including adult irritation.
"I think it's very hard as parents to not feel judged, not just in New York, but anywhere," said Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga. Harper wrote Little Flower Yoga For Kids: A Yoga and Mindfulness Program to Help Your Child Improve Attention and Emotional Balance.
Because Little Flower is outreach-based, Harper relies on minimal props because many settings don't have a big budget. "When you keep it simple the kids will do it at home," she said. "It's also a good way for kids to be aware of what they're doing when they're doing it."
As a former kindergarten teacher and mother of a two-year-old, she knows toddlers are not wired to do what adults tell them. Before offering a series, she conducts a short meeting to establish reasonable parental expectations.
"Adults get stressed by kids not doing what they are supposed to do," Harper said. "They think the behavior of their kid is reflective of their love. When kids at that age get stressed, it's in reaction to adults. Nothing is going to reduce anxiety more than helping adults be happy, calm caregivers, which is the safest place for toddlers to be."