Peer through a window to the ‘Mini Yogis’ class and it looks like any other adult yoga session, with mountain poses, cobras and downward facing dogs. Inch the door open, however, and the elevated noise level immediately gives the game away. Serenity and tranquility? Not likely. More like hilarity and hurly-burly. In this class for little ones, the mountains quickly morph into volcanoes, the cobras wriggle and hiss and the dogs bark, howl and chase each other.
‘By exploring postures through yoga games, children learn to find confidence in their own bodies and discover that staying healthy and growing strong through yoga is fun,’ says yogalates instructor Noura El-Imam.
Judging by the volume, these guys are certainly enjoying themselves, flinging themselves into the animal poses with gusto. The leaping and bending monkey squats are great for strengthening legs, but they’re also ideal for showing off screeching and squawking skills. The downward dog is a lovely back and leg stretch, and when this pooch cocks his leg (if you can stifle the giggles) then it really does test your balance to the limit. Stretching cats, snapping alligators and roaring tigers follow, then everyone gets stuck into the erupting volcano routine, with surges of molten larva coursing through their bodies, up through their arms and out through their fingertips. There’s a collective ‘whoosh’ as all these mini volcanoes erupt, before they collapse to the floor for a rest, curling up like rocks in the sun.
‘I use a lot of animals and landscapes,’ explains Noura, ‘and I often take the kids on a journey, encouraging them to use their imaginations and act out what they see around them.’ Pretending they are eagles – standing on one leg, the other stretched out behind them and their arms as ‘wings’ – Noura asks them, ‘Where are we going to fly today?’ ‘To the beach!’ yells Karim. ‘To the snow!’ says Talal, while Denise is content to ‘go and pick flowers’. Off they fly, spotting all sorts of interesting things on the way – mountains (cue long stretch with arms above their heads), trees (similar but balancing on one leg) the sun and even people camping in tents (that’s downward dog again). ‘There’s a lot of story-telling and acting in the class to help keep their attention,’ says Noura.
The kids get creative – in this class they choose letters of the alphabet and try to create it in a pose – they get to be ‘yogis’, taking turns to instruct the others in their poses, and they have to work together, pairing up with the soles of their feet together, holding hands and rocking about like they’re in their very own body-boat. This one, as Karim announces loudly, is ‘really, really difficult’ and there are a few gleeful ‘man overboards’, but it doesn’t matter – they’re still getting into the poses and improving all the time. ‘Kids are basically show-offs, so once they’ve got the pose, they love to see how long they can hold it in position,’ says Noura.
Of course, Noura is not constantly hammering home inhales and exhales and there’s no mention of strengthening the core, but that, basically, is what’s happening, even when she breaks up the stretching with games, drawing and puzzles. These ‘off-the-mat’ activities may look like playtime, but Noura cleverly links the stories, pictures and puzzles back into yoga poses.
So what are the benefits? Just like adult yoga, these sessions are all about fitness but with a spiritual, or life skills, slant. ‘They are strengthening their core, they are increasing their strength and flexibility, improving their balance and posture and, in the poses where they pair up, they’re learning all about placing trust in their partners,’ says Noura.
Tamara Ballan, Karim’s mum, has noticed a difference. A yoga fan herself, she was keen for her active son to give it a go. ‘Karim is a very sporty boy. He loves football, but, especially here in the Gulf where because of the weather it’s very easy for kids to gain weight, I wanted him to be active and aware of other things he could do,’ she explains. ‘I believe yoga is for all ages and for everyone but, to be honest, I was surprised he liked it so much. He adores pretending to be animals and he loves Noura. He really looks forward to Sundays and his yoga class,’ she says. And has she noticed a difference in Karim’s mental wellbeing? ‘I never really thought about it, but now you ask, I do believe he’s calmer and he listens more,’ she says.
As she’s chatting, Noura has the unenviable task of getting the kids into the ‘Savasana’ pose, also know as the corpse, which involves lying very, very still (not a strong point among most five-year-olds). Karim lets out a noisy fake snore, sending a ripple of sniggering through the class. Ah well, boys will be boys…
Noura runs Mini Yogis classes for kids aged 4-7 years at The Greens on Sundays at 4pm (Dhs60 per 45-minute session, Dhs400 for eight) and at Studio Fitness, JBR on Tuesdays at 4pm (Dhs75 per session or Dhs435 for eight). The package can be split between kids’ yoga and adult yoga and pilates sessions. www.yogalatesblissindubai.com (050 328 9642)