Kids’ classes at Omtastic Yoga look a lot like play — imaginary adventures, animal sounds, “crazy” poses and a little peace at the end — but the benefits are serious.
Jan Pratt, who is a schoolteacher, yoga instructor and co-founder of Omtastic Yoga, described children as “natural yogis.” She said yoga boosts kids’ well being in tangible ways, without demanding the focus of adult classes.
“Kids’ yoga is totally different,” she said. “We have to meet them on their developmental level, so it involves a lot of play that we incorporate poses into. All the poses have the same validity for kids — they’re going to reduce stress, improve strength, help with balance and help with their mindfulness, but we have to do it in a way that’s fun.”
At Omtastic, fun means an imagination-based yoga adventure at the beach or a game that incorporates breathing techniques.
“We do a kids’ meditation class, and the meditations are so short. We start with 1 minute of being quiet, which is an accomplishment for a 6-year-old.”
Harvard Medical School’s health blog highlights research that proves yoga and mindfulness practice “improves balance, strength, endurance and aerobic capacity in children … and can improve focus, memory, self-esteem, academic performance, classroom behavior and can even reduce anxiety and stress in children.”
National Center for Health Statistics figures show yoga has become more popular for kids — 1.7 million American children were doing yoga in 2012, up from 1.3 million in 2007.
Despite those numbers, Omtastic Yoga is believed to be one of just two studios in southern Colorado that has made kids’ yoga its primary focus. The other is in Denver.
“We kind of feel like we’re cutting-edge because people don’t realize what yoga is for kids, what that looks like,” Pratt said. “There’s not a lot of kids’ yoga in the middle of the country, but I think we can get there. We just have to educate parents and schools — and we have to combat that religious connotation that sometimes comes with yoga.”
Pratt said separating the practice of yoga from religion is particularly important in the Springs, “because we have a very strong religious community here, and people want to be able to feel that their kids are safe with what you’re teaching them.
“We’re very careful with kids and with schools to respect that — I don’t ‘om’ with a group of kids unless I know that it’s OK with their parents. When I do chanting, it’s something like ‘I am happy!’ not ‘Om Namah Shivaya.’
And changing the words doesn’t change the benefits, she said.
“You’re getting that same vibration in your body and it’s still decreasing your mental stress levels,” she said. “You can do that without pushing any type of religion or [affecting] anybody’s comfort level. We make it more about the physical aspects and the mental benefits of meditation.”
Pratt said she tells people that yoga has “been around for about 5,000 years, so it predates a lot of religious traditions,” and that Hinduism and Buddhism drew upon the physical and mental elements of yoga, rather than creating them.
Pratt has been a schoolteacher in School District 11 for more than a decade, and still works in the district part-time as a special education teacher. She has four children of her own, and took up yoga 25 years ago, when she couldn’t pursue gymnastics anymore.
She completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training in Manitou Springs eight years ago, trained at yoga ashrams in Austria and Germany, and has trained in Accessible Yoga and Karma Kids yoga.
Pratt launched Omtastic Yoga with fellow teacher and Colorado Springs native Robin Birringer two years ago, when they realized combining yoga and kids was a great match.
They moved from their original location at Academy Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway to the Lincoln Center in May, when the 67-year-old former Lincoln Elementary School reopened as a neighborhood business hub.
“We like the community [at the Lincoln Center],” Pratt said.
“We were in a commercial area before and there was not a lot of involvement with other businesses. Here we’ve got the coffee shop and the barbershop and the CrossFit place and everybody feels like a community — we’re all growing together. When one business succeeds, it helps another business by bringing more people in the door.”
Omtastic is not only for kids. An extensive class list includes everything from prenatal yoga and “Om Baby” to “Om Family,” as well classes where parents can work out while their children play in the toy area.
Pratt said all classes focus on individual abilities, creative energy and developing mind and body awareness. She said yoga helped address one of the big challenges of modern life — that kids rarely have the chance to be quiet anymore.
“They don’t ever have any down time — they’re busy 24/7 just like we are,” she said. “They have 100 things to do and they’re all on technology a lot of the time, which changes how the brain works. So kids need that time to sit quietly — even if it’s just for a minute at the end of a yoga class — that can help their brain.”
Pratt said yoga was also highly effective in alleviating the stress that teens experience.
“Again, they’re super busy, but they also have all these hormonal changes in their body. The physical Asana practice can help calm some of those hormonal changes that are going on and manage a lot of physical changes,” she said. “When we do our teen classes we talk a lot about gratitude and being happy. You know, teens can be kind of gloomy people, so we can get them to realize that they can get past that and they have control over their mental processes to some degree.”
Omtastic also has summer camps and hosts kids’ yoga birthday parties, which Pratt described as “loud — and a lot of fun.”
Through Omtastic, Pratt also teaches after-school yoga classes at nine locations across the Springs, a class at Trailblazer Elementary, as well as an in-school yoga class at Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy.
“The research is pushing yoga forward in schools a little bit more,” she said. “I think it’s a matter of getting people to know about it. Usually, once parents see a class they say, ‘Oh, that’s not what I thought it was.’ We’d like to get a lot of people involved.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story had the name of Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy as Swaggert Middle School.