Carson Ring, 4, loves pretending he's an animal. Every week he acts like a puppy, a cat and even a rhinoceros.
What he doesn't realize is that his play is really exercise. And that is exactly how yoga instructor Kara Best planned it.
Best is co-owner of Bliss Wellness Center on Sir Barton Way, and she has been the instructor of children's yoga classes for the last four years.
When Best first learned about children's yoga, she never intended to teach it. Her personal yoga practices were physically intense, but when her son was born, she wanted a way to involve him in her fitness routine.
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She took a training course on children's yoga and brought the style home. Poses such as "downward facing dog" were suddenly accompanied by barking, and lunges became part of pretending to be a giraffe. Best and her son, Dashiel, would play at being dinosaurs or pirates, anything to make yoga more like a game.
"I wanted him to think that moving our bodies is fun," she said. "To him it's playing, but it's building that foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Adults dread exercise or going to the gym, but to him it's fun."
When other parents began asking her about the playtime yoga, Best decided to create a class to share her training with other children. She now teaches one class for 3- to 6-year-olds and one for ages 6 and older. The calm environment normally associated with yoga gives way to chaos in the classes, but Best said she isn't concerned with everyone doing the moves the "right way." The class involves plenty of wiggling and making silly faces.
"My goal is to let them move and be in their body. I don't really care if they stay on the mat," she said.
Best knows it's the silliness that keeps kids interested, but the games are not without benefit. Breathing exercises strengthen the diaphragm, passing objects with your feet practices coordination, and the yoga poses work the children's core muscles, she said.
Carson's mother, Katie Ring, has been bringing her son to the classes for a year. Carson is an active kid who loves his bike and art classes, but Ring said she worries about him having enough physical activity during the week. She tries to incorporate at least one hour of exercise a day, and the yoga class helps Carson meet that.
"I like that it uses his imagination. The stretching is all physical, but it's a unique exercise for his age," she said.
In another part of town, 3-year-old Alivia Rhodes found her physical outlet on the tumbling mat. In a room of balance beams, high bars and plenty of padding, Alivia practices flips and cartwheels as a member of the preschool gymnastics class at The Little Gym of Lexington East, on Richmond Road.
Julie and Jeremy Wallace opened The Little Gym in February 2010. They offer classes in gymnastics, sports skills and dance for children 4 months to 12 years old. Julie Wallace, also the gym director, said she thinks the general activity level of children is different today than when she was growing up.
"I think about my childhood, how in the summer I left home in the morning and just rode my bike around all day, and didn't come home until the evening," she said. "Sometimes kids need to be shoved out the door and told to go play."
For a generation accustomed to handheld video games and plenty of TV time, Wallace said, it can be difficult for kids to unplug and figure out a way to be active by themselves. She hopes that through the group activities, the children in her class take home what they learn and stay active through the week.
Alivia's mother, Amy Stewart, said she works hard to set the example to live an active lifestyle. Stewart runs every day, but she won't allow Alivia on the treadmill in their home for safety reasons.
"She will say she can't wait to be big enough to get on the treadmill," Stewart said. "With childhood obesity such a problem, she needs to know that being active is an integral part of our lives."
Alivia said her favorite part of class is the high bar. "I pull up and do flips," she said.
Something as simple as a pull-up makes a huge difference to a child's strength and stamina, Wallace said. Her two children, Isabel, 4, and Lincoln, 2, take classes at the gym at least once a week, and the results can be seen on the playground.
"They'll be pulling up on the monkey bars and other parents will comment on how strong they are," she said. "Activity is habit-forming, and the difference you see in the kids after a few months is amazing. It's about building their skills while making them feel good about themselves."