This is an interview with Don Wenig, who, with his wife Marsha Wenig, has been on a mission to help children feel good about themselves since 1989, when they co-founded YogaKids International. Don now manages much of the business side of YogaKids International as well as Dancing Feet Yoga. Don taught at White Lotus Foundation's Center for Yoga in Los Angeles until moving back to the Midwest to co-found Dancing Feet Yoga with Marsha. He has been a Phoenix Rising yoga therapist, a master body worker, a drummer, and an artist. Don also is co-founder of the Go Give Yoga Foundation, serving kids and communities to educate, empower and transform through yoga.
Rob: What motivated you to start working with kids? Where were you in your life at the time?
Marsha and I had recently met. It was 1985. She had been teaching poetry in south central Los Angeles as a volunteer with LA Poets in the Schools. The kids were resistant to writing and sharing their stories. Marsha was concerned and frustrated with their reticence and felt there was so much gold to be unearthed. I was teaching yoga at the White Lotus Center for Yoga and suggested she try getting the kids to try some yoga. Some of my adult students had shared that they found yoga a good way to move through creative blocks.
Marsha had her students get up from behinds their desks, do several poses, become mindful of their breath and before writing connect with the still quiet place within themselves. The results were stunning. The kids opened up, and a flood of profound, heart-wrenching stories followed. The light bulb went on. Yoga helped the kids connect to their creativity and get over the fear of expressing themselves. These yoga tools helped Marsha's teaching enormously.
A couple of years later we moved to Indiana and opened up Dancing Feet Yoga Center. Our own daughter entered Montessori school and on our first visit we noticed that many of the children were tense, nervous and physically tight. This was a surprising revelation. Really? Already? At this young age? Marsha had found her passion. She volunteered a couple of times a week, this time to "play yoga" and the kids taught her the real magic of yoga.
Is there evidence that what you are teaching kids works?
While early evidence was anecdotal, the countless stories that parents shared with us were inspiring. Improved moods and sleeping habits, higher self confidence, better grades, and more coping skills were just a few of the benefits parents saw in their children. Yoga for children has evolved in wonderful ways over the years and now there is research that corroborates everything that parents have been sharing with us for decades.
Is it an adult idea that kids should practice yoga?
Of course. Adults want kids to "practice" yoga. Kids just want to play and of course play is learning. They have an innate knowing that they need to move. That's one of the reasons that incorporating movement in the classroom is so important. They learn better that way. It's natural and fun for them to make connections between poses, their lives and the world around them.
Nowadays everyone is teaching "kids yoga," whereas when you and Marsha started, it was something new. Please compare and contrast what you teach with the way it's being taught by more-recently trained instructors.
Many of the more recently-trained teachers could probably trace their approaches back to Marsha's influence. She and a small handful of other passionate teachers helped revolutionize the way yoga was taught to children in this country by recognizing that adult methods didn't work with kids. Her book, Educating the Whole Child Through Yoga, and the many videos she's produced redefine yoga in a way that kids find fun and engaging.
Yoga-for-children has blossomed into an amazing movement over the past 30 years. Along with the basic tenants of yoga's eight limbs and childhood/energy/educational development, the YogaKids approach is rooted in the work of Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, Magda Gerber, Paul and Gail Dennison and Howard Gardner just to mention a few.
Much like then I'm sure that every kid's yoga teacher shows up with an open heart and all of their gifts and talents to share. I'll bet that they all learn more from the students than they ever imagined and are equally committed to empowering children though their teaching, unconditional acceptance, love, respect and compassion.
Yoga used to be a practice to prepare the body for meditation. What is it you are teaching kids? Is there anything spiritual about your teaching, or is it strictly about stretching and breathing?
Yoga helps prepare kids for life. Strength, balance, focus and mindfulness, all lead to the understanding and expression of ones inner self. Yoga for kids is self-empowering. Becoming more peaceful, more attuned to others and appreciative of nature is all spiritual to me. We teach gratitude, awareness, creativity and that life is filled with spirit as much as we teach stretching and breathing.
What is your vision for yoga with the kids you are trying to serve? What would you like to see happen?
The project we're most excited about right now is the creation of an educational TV show pilot called YogaKids: The Magical Garden (working title). Set in a magical yoga garden, the show follows the adventures of the five YogaKids and the "gardener" character. Using yoga as a springboard the episodes are told through a mix of live-action, stories, music, animation and puppetry, these adventures teach character education, social awareness, coping strategies, physical development, and connections to science, math and literacy. Kids at home will be invited by the YogaKids to join in the fun -- to get up, stretch, play, sing and dance. And hopefully, the kids at home will continue doing what they've learned AFTER the TV is shut off! By meeting kids where they're at (in front of the TV), we can plant the seeds for a lifetime of healthy, creative, caring and compassionate living. The progress of the pilot can be followed at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1130881817/yogakidstm-childrens-tv-show-pilot.
What continues to motivate you?
Wanting to co-create a world where children, their families and communities can thrive motivates me. Hoping to contribute just a little bit to a healthier, happier life filled with more loving kindness motivates me. Seeing yoga being taught in schools is a constant motivation. Our YogaKids Tools for Schools™ program helped pioneer this movement, which is now spreading like wildflowers. I am hopeful that yoga will have a significant, transformational impact on education in the future.
I'm interested in your thoughts on service, and the types of service that come from a yoga practice. What kind of service opportunity does a yoga practice offer to teachers working with kids?
It seems to me that service is a natural outcome of one's yoga practice. Perhaps practice organically leads to the understanding that the suffering of just one child means suffering in each of us. Years ago, Marsha and I started the YogaKids Bridge of Diamonds Foundation which has recently been renamed Go Give Yoga. The mission remains the same: serving kids and communities to educate, empower and transform through yoga. The work is focused on under-funded schools and children in need. And what community isn't in need? Go Give Yoga's current opportunities for yoga teachers to work heart to heart with children in need are in Haiti and Appalachia.
What organizations do you admire?
Wow, the list is so long. It's like an award show thank you list! I'll try to whittle it down. IAYT, Yoga for the Special Child, Circus Yoga, K-12 Yoga, Go Give Yoga, Off the Mat, Next Generation Yoga, Grounded Kids, Street Yoga, The Wellness Initiative, Give Back Yoga Foundation, Yoga Service Council, Radiant Child Yoga, Urban Zen, and Yoga Alliance.
All contribute to the landscape of yoga and yoga for kids in such unique and diverse ways. I admire and am in awe of them all.