Liz Gotauco “felt the zen” during a 30-minute yoga session her library held for teens last summer. An offer from a local, certified yoga instructor (and neighborhood mom) to run three drop-in classes was impossible to turn down—and Gotauco saw the possibilities immediately: poses tied to stories, plus a little positive marketing for the library itself.
“The library is not the first place you think about when looking to be physically active,” says Gotauco, the head of youth services at the Merrimack (NH) Public Library. “But it’s another thing we can offer. People hear, ‘Yoga at the library? That’s cool.’”
Today, more than 20 million people in the U.S. practice yoga (8.7 percent of the total population). That’s a 29 percent increase since 2008, according to a 2012 study by Yoga Journal. So it’s hardly a wonder that the activity has found its way into school and public libraries, championed by librarians and other educators who themselves practice yoga and are using the discipline to enhance well-being and literacy among their patrons, children and adults alike.
F IS FOR FROG POSE
How popular is it? Plus, books, music, and websites.
Yoga has grown so popular in Oklahoma City’s Metropolitan Library System (MLS) that the library now offers classes at seven locations, including programs for kids, from preschool to age 12. Kristin Williamson, the children services coordinator at MLS, has been with the library since the program was started by a children’s librarian who used Teresa Anne Power’s book The ABCs of Yoga for Kids (Stafford House, 2009) to create a mini-exercise class for preschool children. Some of the classes are run by librarians, while some MLS library branches hire certified yoga instructors.
“[The children’s librarian] presented it at one of the regular meetings we have with all the librarians in our system,” says Williamson. “Several librarians ran with it.”
Library yoga rarely resembles the strenuous activity held in gyms and yoga centers. The small, often drop-in classes are light yoga at best; for kids, they are often organized around an activity or story hour. Even so, it’s recommended that teachers of yoga be certified, which usually requires 200 hours of courses, according to the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT).
“There are more and more special certifications being developed for teaching children,” says John Kepner, IAYT director. “So it would be best to have certified teachers, with special training for children—especially at the grade level they are teaching.”
At Oklahoma City’s MLS, classes vary, say Williamson. Some use posters that show poses whose names start with different letters of the alphabet, such as the frog pose for “F” or the eagle pose for “E.” Some branches hold yoga classes once a month, others once a week; some also use music or hire an outside yoga instructor. There are often books to borrow on the subject if patrons want to continue practicing yoga at home. As the number of classes has increased, so have requests from patrons who want even more sessions and at more branches.
“We have parents asking for it, which is a big change,” says Williamson. “And that’s prompted us to offer it more.”
REDUCING STUDENT STRESS
Tracey Wong runs the yoga classes at P.S. 54, Fordham Bedford Academy, a K–5 school in the Bronx, NY. Although not a certified yoga instructor, she has been a practicing yogi for the last 15 years. Twice a month, Wong leads classes through poses, helping second and third graders learn how to slow down, reflect, and explore another way to express themselves. Yoga gives them the resources to calmly react to stressful situations—at school or anywhere. She doesn’t obtain release forms from parents, nor does she involve the administration. To Wong, yoga is less a workout than a way for her students to find calm.
“Sometimes kids are angry or have a disagreement with the teacher and don’t know how to conduct themselves,” says Wong, P.S. 54’s librarian and a classroom teacher of 10 years. “Through yoga, they learn how to conduct themselves in a positive way.”
Wong reads from a picture book featuring yoga poses, then shows students how to do a couple of the movements for about 15–20 minutes. They work on two poses primarily—cat, in which the children, on their hands and knees, arch their backs upward like stretching felines, and downward-facing dog, with feet and hands planted on the ground, the body forming an upside down “V.” A literacy lesson follows. The mini-exercises are always done on the library rug with shoes on. “Fire drills,” says Wong, by way of explanation.
NOT WITHOUT CONTROVERSY
Fire drills aren’t the only potential disruption to yoga in school settings. The practice has drawn criticism in several districts. One local lawmaker opposed yoga being taught in Santa Fe, NM, schools in 2013. And parents of students in the Encinitas (CA) Unified School District filed a lawsuit to remove yoga class from a physical education program. Their objection: the purported religious aspects of yoga. The case was dismissed last fall.
Librarians interviewed for this story have not talked about deities or karma in their yoga classes. While the practice has connections to religion, including Hinduism and Buddhism, and spirituality, yoga itself is not a belief system. And judging from patron enthusiasm for the classes, no one has a problem with performing sun salutations among the stacks.
“We’ve never had any feedback that’s negative,” says Marge Loch-Wouters, the youth services manager of the La Crosse (WI) Public Library for the last six years. “What I do hear is, ‘Oooh! When are you starting to do yoga again?’”
Loch-Wouters, who is a devoted and “happy yoga practitioner,” describes her community as “pretty liberal in a general way.” There are yoga studios all over town. She has co-taught yoga classes at La Crosse with two other instructors: Rachel Slough, a certified yoga teacher working toward her social work degree, and Emily Sustar, who is also certified. The library doesn’t require release forms, since participating parents do the poses alongside their children. Loch-Wouters and Slough use two books, Sydney Solis’s Storytime Yoga: Teaching Yoga to Children through Story and Solis’s The Treasure in Your Heart: Yoga and Stories for Peaceful Children (both Mythic Yoga Studio, 2006, 2007), with Loch-Wouters reading while the instructor goes through poses suggested by the books.
After school and on Saturdays, classes are held for young children, four and up, who are invited to take off their shoes and then introduce themselves to the group. Everyone does the stretches, including parents, and the 20 or so patrons finish with a little guided meditation. Afterwards, there are books on hand related to that day’s poses and available for checkout. If a class centers on downward-facing dog, for example, displayed titles might be about dogs or other animals and how they move. Loch-Wouters often talks to the kids about her own experience in order to encourage them to keep up their yoga, even if it’s difficult at first.
“I tell them I am 61 years old, and I can touch my toes now,” she says. “I tell them I couldn’t do that for almost 25 years, but since I started yoga, it makes me more supple, strong, and balanced.”
EMBRACING A NATIONAL TREND
Kimberly Alberts emphasized the healthy aspects of yoga to her patrons when she held a yoga and smoothies program for teens last summer. The theme was superheroes. And the connection to yoga?
“That you could be a hero and be as super healthy and as strong as you can be,” says the children and young adult librarian at Ohio’s Hudson Library and Historical Society. “That’s where I thought: yoga could fit in.”
Alberts, who takes yoga classes regularly at a studio in her town, saw notes on an online library bulletin board from librarians who had experimented with yoga in their libraries, and decided to offer a class to patrons herself. She set up a one-time teen class, three sessions for children kindergarten age and younger, and an afternoon session for first and second graders. The cost to the library was the price of snacks, plus a fee paid to a hired yoga instructor.
To Alberts, integrating yoga into the library made perfect sense. As a librarian, she believes that part of her mission is to promote the well being of her patrons and help them become more well rounded, intelligent, and healthy. She feels that yoga helps in many of these respects, especially with children.
“I have read research about the benefits [of yoga] for kids,” she says. “It helps them relax and focus, be more flexible, help with their breathing, and think better. There’s a bevy of benefits.”
Exposing her young patrons to more exercise was also at the forefront of Krista King-Oaks’s decision to include a yoga class in a physical fitness program she held last summer with a certified yoga practitioner from a local studio. King-Oaks, a children’s librarian at the Kenton County (KY) Public Library, wove the classes into the library’s annual summer reading event, and also included classes on karate, zumba, and CrossFit, among other types of exercise, hiring outside people.
Yoga was a little challenging with the older kids in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, she says, since they had a lot of questions and a harder time staying quiet than the K–3 group. But parents loved the sessions so much that King-Oaks is bringing them back this month.
“[Yoga] opened them up to something a little different,” she says of her young patrons. “It gave them an idea of stillness and self-reflection, and that was new to a lot of [them].”
To Loch-Wouters, the popularity of yoga is not a surprise, since she’s watched more and more communities start to teach the exercise program in multiple venues—not just the library. She hopes to expand the yoga offerings at her own library and hold them more than the two to three times a year they’ve been happening to date. Even if a librarian is uncomfortable doing tree pose with her patrons, Loch-Wouters hopes that more will be encouraged to find an outside instructor to weave some physical activity into literacy lessons—and stretch the idea of what a storytime can be.
“It’s a great way to tie fitness with stories,” she says. “This offers the perfect marriage.”