Yoga: a gentle form of exercise, a way to wind down, a spiritual high. But a way to bond with your child? The growing number of parents who do yoga with their babies say it works, and the trend might be here to stay.
Schools that cater to babies as young as a few weeks as well as to toddlers have sprung up all over America and Europe. In New York, Sarah Perron and Laura Staton have taught a class they call Baby Om since 1999 to help postpartum mothers bond with their children while they exercise. "We have had mothers bring their babies as early as four weeks. They come until they are really crawling around," says Perron. And the mothers, who generally range in age from twenty to fifty, include models, lawyers, therapists, dancers, actors, and archeologists.
Thirty-five-year-old Anna Fort, a researcher and production coordinator at WGBH Interactive in Boston, Massachusetts, has been doing yoga for about eight years. She was given a book on mom-baby yoga, and when she had Dylan, now approaching his first birthday, she decided she would include him. "I think it calms [babies] and they get in touch with their own bodies," Fort says. "And you're really communicating with the baby. He's looking at you and laughing and you're looking at him and laughing. I feel like we're bonding more than if I'm just walking around with him on my hip."
Although the children cannot, for the most part, hit the poses themselves, yoga helps "parents and babies bond physically, emotionally, and spiritually," says Helen Garabedian, who started Itsy Bitsy Yoga in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and trains facilitators across the country. "The mothers who come are more confident in their ability to bond, play with, and calm their babies. They learn to relax and treasure each moment with them." (Garabedian has some dads in her classes as well.)
Jennifer Johnston, the director of yoga programs at the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, agrees. "Babies are really connected to their moms. I would hypothesize that they're more relaxed because their moms are more relaxed," she says. "It also seems common-sense wisdom that the practice makes us more receptive to other people," which would translate to stronger bonds between parents and babies.
Babies taking yoga classes may be a new trend in the West, but the tradition from which it has grown dates back centuries. Harriotte Hurie, a licensed massage therapist and ethnomusicologist, saw firsthand how babies in India are massaged and exercised when she visited the country in 1971. "I'd see women massaging their babies with mustard oil that's been heated with ajwain [oregano seeds] pretty vigorously," she says. The women would move the babies' limbs as they massaged the oil in circular motions.
When Hurie adopted her daughter thirteen years ago, she did the same. "It's like baby exercise," she says. "We know it stimulates the circulation. And when they're excited, it calms them down. They get so accustomed to the sense of well-being and being touched, it helps them a lot."
Parents and teachers of yoga babies say that yoga offers unmistakable physical benefits-better neuromuscular development and more confidence, for instance. Physically, yoga helps babies build the strength to roll, crawl, sit, and later walk, says Baby Om's Perron. Many believe the practice helps with emotional regulation as well-although, admittedly, it is difficult to discern natural disposition from yoga's effects.
Sonia Russo, a thirty-four-year-old, stay-at-home mother of two, has done yoga for about seven years, but didn't know about baby yoga until she had her second child. Her younger daughter, Serena, was a month old when they started doing yoga at Itsy Bitsy Yoga, and Russo finds a big comparative difference. Serena, who was born with an enlarged kidney and has needed tests and operations, cries only if she's hurt herself. When she last had surgery, she was so composed, even the doctor was astonished. Fiona, who is nearly five, gets frustrated easily and doesn't know how to calm herself down.
"It could be personality," Russo concedes, adding that it could also be that she is less nervous about her second child, having gone through it all before.
Because yoga elicits relaxation and lowers stress hormones, it also alleviates the symptoms of stress such as headaches and muscular tension, Johnston says. In clinics such as the California Pacific Medical Center, yoga is prescribed as therapy for children with headaches. Luis Bello-Espinosa, a neurologist there, recommends yoga for some children with chronic anxiety-stemming from their parents' divorce, for example.
"When conventional therapy has not been helping, we prescribe yoga either alone or in conjunction with other things like biofeedback and massage therapy," Espinosa says. One hypothesis, which he concedes is subject to debate, is that yoga regulates dopamine levels in the brain, reducing stress and the frequency of headaches.
Although it is difficult to prove the benefits of yoga for small children, a growing number of young mothers like Anna Fort are trying it out. "I don't know if he's just an easy baby or if it's what we do," Fort says of Dylan. What she does know is that both parties seem to be enjoying it.