A nursery yoga class helps develop mind and body, says Norma Cohen.
Six small figures run into a sunny room in a church hall in Kilburn, north London, and automatically sink onto blue mats. "Stand with your feet together," says teacher Anne-Marie Zulkahari. Three and four-year-olds from The Learning Tree independent nursery are about to have a yoga class.
"Who's got the straightest spine?" she asks. "Look at me," clamours everyone. "Take your arms above your head. Bend one leg foot to knee. Be still." A spindly forest of wobbly trees stands triumphant.
"Now balancing birds. Very difficult. Get down into a little squat, bottoms up. Who can lift their toes up?" Skilfully, she develops the story of a kneeling mouse with a round back chased away by a dog which cocks a leg before Anne-Marie suggests it.
"Now a circus trick. The dog can lift one arm too." Her use of animal imagery helps the class along. A hissing snake arching to the ceiling preludes a bendy, rocking boat. A squeaking seal claps its feet together, striving to get toes to head, feet to ears.
"Who can get their knees to the floor?" They can all make a "butterfly book" of their upturned feet. And calmly stretched out like stars, they attempt sitting between their heels. Adil obligingly folds his legs into a lotus position.
"Lie down and go to sleep," says Anne-Marie. The dead man's pose gives a few moments of total quiet, the keystone of yoga practice for over-stimulated lives.
Anne-Marie encourages the children to put their hands on helper Lisa's rounded, mouse back. "Can you feel her back move? When do you think she's breathing in and out?" "She's breathing out! She's breathing in!" shouts everyone.
"Breathing helps develop awareness," says Anne-Marie. "I can 'read' students by their breath patterns, which show tensions and states of mind and can change day to day."
The children roll on to their sides, close their eyes and listen to the sounds of the room. "What can you hear?" whispers Anne-Marie. A police car, the photographer's camera, a crocodile.
In 20 minutes, she has moved through an essential sequence of quiet and active poses geared to young, vulnerable bones. "You'd expect all children to be supple, but it's a myth. If not encouraged, children tend to hold themselves in and lose their natural flexibility," she says.
"Yoga is one of the few forms of exercise parents and children can enjoy together. It is a Sanskrit word meaning the union of physical, mental and spiritual. It's a gentle, non-competitive way of keeping the body fit for life."
Principal Maura Guerin says: "Many of our children are asthma sufferers. The class helps with their breathing techniques and is a good way to exercise. Others are hyper when they go down, but return relaxed and easier to teach."
Sarah practises on her play mat. "It's helped her co-ordinate and it's fun," says her mother. Dylan insists on demonstrating the toe movements at bathtime. Roshan describes "asanas" (postures) to his mother who goes to Anne-Marie's adult class. One parent is trying to find her son another class now he's in mainstream school.
Inspired by her own yoga teacher, who has written a children's book, Anne-Marie learned yoga as a stressed GCSE student. After featuring in BBC television's Playaway, she worked with children as performerchoreographer in New York and now runs a renowned Pilates corrective exercise and yoga studio. The busy mother of three-year-old Adil, she makes time for daily meditation herself.
"With the stressful pressure of guidelines, tests and parental expectations, yoga is a time to let go," she says.
* The Learning Tree: 0171 624 3948.
* Pilates and Yoga Movement: 0171 624 3948.
* 'Yoga for Children: Simple Exercises to Help Children Grow Strong and Supple' by Mary Stewart and Kathy Phillips, Vermilion, pound;8.99