Teaching yoga in preschools has exploded in popularity nationwide, and Jewish preschools are catching on. Numerous websites and curricula offer yoga as a way to strengthen, stretch, relax and energize young children’s bodies and improve overall health through movement.
“Teaching yoga is not just a trend among Jewish preschools, but among preschools in general,” says Mindy Henry, associate director of the Olga and Bob Strauss Center for Early Childhood Education at Tucson’s Temple Emanu-El. “Yoga teaches children how to focus, how to calm down and be in the moment. Yoga has shown to have lifelong benefits.”
The Strauss ECE incorporates yoga into their 3- and 4-year-old curriculum in the Katz Family Library and Youth Center adjacent to the preschool space. Their yoga teacher, Ally Magdalin, typically teaches yoga through storytelling, and the children use yoga to act out the characters and situations as they progress through the movement. The class uses dim lights and yoga mats to create a relaxing atmosphere.
“Jewish preschools tend to be pretty up on the nationwide education trends,” says Mindy.
The Strauss ECE plans to keep yoga running as long as possible.
The newly opened Tucson Jewish Montessori, run by Rabbi Israel and Esther Becker, hopes to incorporate yoga into their curriculum in the future. “It is still early days, and G-d willing, we will be able to add it in the future,” says co-founder Ester Becker.
The Tucson J uses yoga as a part of their national Discover: CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health, Nutrition and Exercise) curriculum. Children from ages 6 weeks to 5 years attend movement classes, which incorporate yoga in the last 30 minutes of class.
“Yoga reinforces skills that are important for students to learn on their own,” says Marian Schiltz, associate director of the Early Childhood Education department. “Self-regulation, meditation, deep breathing – all these skills work towards our goal of helping students to recognize when they’re over-stimulated or angry and then self-regulate that behavior.”
Marian has seen the yoga teaching pay off in big ways. “At the beginning of the year, our 4-year-old class was holding their child’s pose for about 10 seconds,” Marian explains. “But recently the entire class held their pose for a complete minute, in total silence. Truthfully, it was sort of shocking to see a room full of 4-year-olds being so silent and focused for so long!”
Because so many yoga poses are named for animals – cat and cow, cobra, downward-facing dog – it is easy to come up with animal sounds to accompany the movements. Marian frequently incorporates an animal story as she teaches.
“Most of this is more intuitive that we recognize,” says Marian. “To achieve the ability to let it be, to breathe slowly, to take a break from our fast-paced society, these are things we all need as humans.”
Nowhere is this more evident than with the youngest babies at the Tucson J. During a recent session, Schiltz lifted a soft scarf up over a small group of babies lying on their backs. “Every single baby lifted their feet and grabbed them with their hands … Happy Baby pose!” says Marian chuckling. “We learn these things intuitively; we just forget them over time.”
Sarah Chen is the associate director of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s northwest division and serves as a freelance writer in her spare time. She lives in northwest Tucson with her husband and two preschool-aged children.