Young students at Sunnyslope School are getting their minds, bodies and spirits in shape at an early age in a yoga program designed just for kids.
Story by Erin Wilds, Photos by Tristin Godsey
There’s a lot about this yoga class that doesn’t feel, sound or look like a yoga class.
First, there’s a lot more noise. But that’s only because of the second unusual aspect of this session – the only person past age 10 is Cassie May, the volunteer who leads Lil’ Yogis, Sunnyslope Elementary School’s thrice-weekly yoga program designed just for kids.
May is not your typical yogi either, at least not in these sessions, which she runs more like a drill sergeant, she says with a laugh. Whatever it takes to help a group of around 25 kindergarteners through fifth-graders work on strengthening their bodies, minds and lives.
May, who operates Geter Done Hair Salon in downtown Roseburg, was teaching yoga to her children at home when she was approached in 2015 by Sunnyslope principal Don Schrader about starting a yoga program for kids at the school. Schrader had developed a program called “Sunnyslope on the Move” with the goal of “getting kids moving and stretching before school and running at lunchtime.”
Schrader used grant money to purchase fitness equipment, including yoga mats, and started teaching a yoga class himself. The kids responded as enthusiastically as Schrader did upon learning the mother of one of his students was a yoga teacher.
“She is so much better at it than I am,” he says.
A “self-taught yogi” of 15 years, May believes learning yoga is more than just a fun activity for the children.
“It teaches them mindfulness, and it teaches them about their body, which is most important,” she says. “Mind is power. The brain is the biggest muscle of the body, and if you can’t learn to control it as a child, it’s very difficult as an adult.”
Kids can gain as much as adults by practicing yoga, according to May. The postures (called asanas) help build body strength and flexibility. Deep and full breathing (pranayama) can bring peacefulness or energy to the body. In addition to physical and spiritual benefits, May believes techniques learned in yoga can help kids learn to better deal with and understand their own emotions.
“Kids’ emotions are all over the place. It’s good to teach them while they’re young that it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to have your feelings hurt, and it’s OK to express all those emotions,” says May.
She teaches her yogis to practice kindness inside and outside of their sessions. For example, she encourages the children to give compliments instead of insults when their feelings are hurt.
“I tell them ‘When you think something negative, say something positive,’” she says. “Children are fragile and they’re perfect to teach the importance of respecting, loving and being kind to others. I think that part of the world is kind of dissipating. I want to show them that it’s easy to be happy.”
The Sunnyslope kids have responded enthusiastically. Classes are filled with laughter and buzzing energy while May playfully yells out instructions. When the class ends, the yogis gather in a circle, put their hands together in the middle and yell, “One, two, three, Lil’ Yogis!” before a large group hug.
Some of the kids have taken their interest beyond the classes. Several parents have told May that they have acquired their own yoga mats for home so their children can practice there.
May hopes to expand Lil’ Yogis to reach kids outside of Sunnyslope by hosting a free weekly session at a local park this summer. She is currently setting up crowdfunding to raise money for mats for outdoor classes and fund shirts for the Lil’ Yogis.
The goal, May says, is to continue spreading mindfulness and happiness.