Crazy Wisdom Kids in the Community: Bikram Yoga Youth Program

By Lisa Gribowski-Smith

Bikram Yoga Youth Program (BYYP)

Until recently, my daughter was an adorable, well-behaved bum warmer at Bikram Yoga Ann Arbor, where I attend classes weekly. Wi-fied to the max on her iPad, Elizabeth sat cool as a cucumber on a chic, modern bench while I dripped and strained in some pretzel-like position behind thick glass doors. Between Minecraft tutorials and Snapchat with her pals, Elizabeth observed 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises done by men and women from every background and every age.

Adults who practice Bikram yoga stretch to a standard dialogue recited with trained precision by a certified instructor. The dialogue was designed by Bikram Choudhury to efficiently communicate how to safely do postures the right way, with maximum benefit and within a specific time frame. For those who practice regularly, the dialogue is a comforting tool that effectively guides students to stretch out of their minds and into 90 sweaty minutes of moving meditation. The dialogue can be heard in every Bikram studio around the world without exception. In this way, class is predictable, which has real appeal in a rapid-speed world with ever-changing inputs and daily demands.

Elizabeth watched with amazement as adults dripped, splattered, and slipped through the poses for a carefully timed hour and a half. Sweating is the popular marker of the practice for adults and there’s no way around this. Every class is 105 degrees plus 40 percent humidity. These numbers are carefully selected by Bikram to support optimal stretching, compression, oxygenated blood flow, and detoxification with every posture. “We want it to be hot and humid for adults because this is how Bikram learned the series from his guru, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, in India. The constant sweating is cleansing. The heat makes maximum stretching possible. It all works together,” explained instructor Jen Cohen.

In the Youth Yoga Program, the heat is turned off. This is an important distinction from adult classes. In fact, it’s essential and on purpose. “The kids don’t need it, nor can they handle it,” said studio co-owner and instructor Michelle Pischea. “They are already flexible, limber, and, for the most part, fearless. Sweat glands are also not developed until age 14. Heat in duration is not safe for kids.”

The room temperature is comfortably warm for kids. Ideal for safe stretching. The studio doors and windows are opened to lose any residual heat. “Kids come to class naturally flexible,” said Youth Yoga Instructor Jozlyn Abrams. “Yoga teaches them how to control their flexibility within physical limits of safety and self-awareness. We work on self-control. I ask them questions as they are in postures to help them identify, feel, and explore personal limits. Knowing limits is necessary to knowing oneself, taking care and being safe.”

Learning body awareness as children is essential to understanding and grasping limits in life. When a body part can only move a certain way, this is valuable information. When moving the same body part meets a feeling of resistance, discomfort, or pain, this simple mind-body connection translates into healthy self-reliance, street smarts, and playground confidence. Kids begin to figure out where they begin and end within themselves. What’s more, they learn how body awareness changes from day to day, even moment to moment, according to a checklist of variables, including nutrition, hydration, sleep, flexibility, and emotions. Personal awareness stretches kids to personal responsibility for themselves with attention and intentionality that moves them to greater overall health.

Learning personal limits also helps kids figure out limits among their peers, family members, and in the communities they interact with. Learning how far to go comfortably, when to stop, and how to get safely in and out of a posture shows a child what their own personal beginning and end look and feel like. Learning to listen carefully to instruction and use breath as a guide to stretch comfortably within personal mind-body boundaries reinforces this learning. It’s visceral and that sticks.

The underpinnings of BYYP are champion — literally. Inspired by Yoga Asana World Champion Joseph Encinia, the program reflects reverence for the life-saving power of Bikram yoga. At age eight, Joseph was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory arthritis that affects the blood and internal organs as well as the joints. It’s considered one of the most painful diseases of its kind. He medicated the pain and learned to live with severely restricted mobility. At age 13, Joseph had a heart attack, likely a side effect from all the medications he was taking.

To regain his health, Joseph turned to exercise. He eventually landed in a Bikram yoga class, where he quickly knew he had found his medicine. What started as fitness turned to total healing, including a 50-pound weight loss, the development of lean body mass, and a life full of athletic accomplishment — something he had been told would never be possible. Joseph was able to come off all medications and live virtually pain free. He contorted his rigorous beginner’s practice into advanced training and annual competitions, earning himself three U.S. national titles and one men’s international title. In 2009, Joseph won second place in the world’s Asana Championship.

In gratitude for the life he is living through yoga, Joseph co-founded Yoga Youth Movement, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching teens how to discover who they are within themselves. Using yoga and movement sequences, teens learn to stabilize their minds and emotions. In a world mostly bent on prescribing medication to manage moods and using media images to define self-worth, yoga skill gives teens a deep sense of accomplishment. They learn that they are strong and good both inside and out. Joseph describes this awakening to oneself as self-realization.

With Joseph’s guidance, Michelle started the BYYP to give kids a safe place to love themselves. When describing the intention, Michelle is passionate:

In the studio, kids get to discover who they are for themselves. They get to look into their eyes and see reality; how special, good, and unique they are. Without any distractions. Zero outside stimulation! Zero electronics! They face themselves and get to love who they are. That’s powerful! They can’t avoid themselves by focusing on hair, name brands, or clothes. For one whole hour, they get a chance to stop and think. For one hour, there’s no texting!”

Regular practice has been transformative for Michelle’s two teenage children. “My kids can manage stress and anxiety with simple deep-breathing exercises called pranayama breathing, learned in class. They can calm themselves down, get centered and re-focused all by themselves. Knowing they can take care of themselves wherever they are, when they need it, helps them and me feel secure that they can handle whatever comes up! This is a big relief!”

Class for kids is an hour of pure fun. Bikram instructors who teach Youth Yoga were trained by Joseph to engage with kids playfully in an open-style format. Instruction is given informally, alongside students. The poses are taught through playful demonstration, skillfully adapted to the mix of ages and abilities in class. Unlike adults who practice with a standard dialogue recited from a podium, kids get to practice with very personalized instruction. Questions including “how far can you go?” “where does your body want to stop?” and “how does it feel?” guide kids to deeper body awareness for themselves.

Kids do ten poses from the Bikram series, in addition to deep breathing exercises. Poses emphasize stretching, stillness, focus, and concentration. There is a guided meditation at the end of class that teaches kids to tune into their breath, go within, notice, look, and watch. They get to practice mindfulness, concentrated stillness, and focused attention within themselves and on their surroundings, essential skills for developing objectivity in life.

Since kids come to class naturally flexible, yoga is really doable. Yoga achievement builds confidence to handle tough stuff outside the studio, whatever that looks like for a kid. Struggles with math, bedtime fears, body image, or learning how to tie shoes become part of practice in life. “When you practice getting in a posture you keep falling out of, you get better at trying again,” teaches Cohen. “By trying again and again, you get more comfortable with trying. This builds practice, and practice makes trying stuff more comfortable and normal. Trying becomes everyday. New stuff isn’t so scary or hard anymore.”

When kids exit the studio, they are super confident. “Look what I can do!” is the happy echo that reassures parents yoga is working, building confidence, health, and self-esteem. Kids bend over backwards, lift a leg, and stretch sideways, proud to show off what their bodies can do with focused effort. Kids can’t wait to do a yoga class again. Yoga is cool! It’s a natural extension of what life already is … fun learning, in real time! Joseph Encina’s message to kids to “do yoga, start early!” is a prescription for happy that kids love to take.

To learn more about the Bikram Yoga Youth Program visit

To learn more about Joseph Encinia visit: Bikram Yoga Ann Arbor is located at 3227 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48104.

Kids columnist Lisa Gribowski-Smith is an intuit and psychic. She can be reached at (734) 709-9706 or


If you’d like to be considered for inclusion in the next Crazy Wisdom Kids column, please email our columnist at The deadline for submissions for the May through August 2016 issue is March 1, 2016.

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Posted on December 31, 2015 and filed under Yoga, Wellness.