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PHOTO: Chris Shields

Ring Around the Yogi

Pose, stretch, crawl: yoga for the under-4 crowd

By Miriam Axel-Lute


The Albany Kripalu Yoga Center, like many places focusing on that meditative discipline, has atmosphere. Its chairs are comfy, its door hangings colorful, the tea water always hot. A sign just beyond the coat closet asks that conversations be kept inside the reception area so as not to disturb the classes.

But for the past two and a half years or so, one morning a week the cord of the teapot is tucked carefully behind the leg of the table and there’s likely to be more noise inside the yoga rooms than out. Long-popular prenatal yoga has a rambunctious younger sibling: yoga for babies, toddlers, and tykes.

If you have trouble imagining a row of 1-year-olds breathing deeply for a count of five as they touch their toes, well, you probably have met a 1-year-old or two. Luckily, that’s not even the goal. “Most people think of yoga as the poses in a hatha yoga class, but yoga really means ‘union,’ ” explains Cathy Prescott, who teaches her own Mom and Baby Yoga as well as Itsy Bitsy Yoga, based on the work of Helen Garabedian, at AKYC and other locations in the Capital Region. “In the Itsy Bitsy Yoga classes, union is the continued bonding between parent and child, the development of body awareness at an age-appropriate level for the child, and even breath awareness.”

The tots class is for “almost crawlers” to age 2, and Prescott introduces it by pointing out the only areas in the room that are not crawler-proof (kids can open the door enough to pinch themselves and shouldn’t get their hands on the fire extinguisher). She then emphasizes that kids this age may or may not want to participate with the group. They may want to snuggle, wander on their own, or do the activity of 10 minutes ago. But even if they appear not to be paying attention, Prescott says, don’t worry. They’re taking it all in, and you may find them replicating things from the class at home.

“For the younger tots, crawling and walking are the most obvious developmental skills,” says Prescott. “Once learned, these are what the kids want to do, so in the class setting, you’ll see the kids moving all over the place, enjoying the spaciousness of the room. We like to say that the entire room is the yoga mat, so . . . the parent goes to the child to do the activity and perhaps draws him/her back to the group. . . . Children learn through observation and repetition; I’m convinced that every single child is paying attention regardless of how it may appear.”

This is good advice, though at the class I attended, parents of the more independent and exploratory kids did look a little lost and occasionally disappointed when their kids seemed to be more interested in stealing other kids’ props than rushing into their laps for the “I love you” series.

In some ways, a “tots” yoga class with Prescott feels like an entire day of nursery school compressed into 50 minutes, minus the snack and the nap. There’s singing, bouncing on mini beach balls, familiar mimicking games (“so big!”), counting practice while balancing beanbag animals on heads, and playing peek-a-boo with scarves. There’s even peer pressure (the good kind): for “Crawl Along Yogi,” anyone who can—adults and kids—crawls from the starting circle to the other side of the room. As we make our scattered way, Prescott says not to rush confused kids. “Often they’re so surprised to see adults crawling too that they just stare for a while.”

“We’ve often seen toddlers not particularly interested in crawling decide to crawl because they see everybody . . . crawling in class,” she relates later. “We don’t force the movement, rather we model it.”

Itsy Bitsy Yoga is not for the cute-o-phobic. Following Garabedian, every activity has a particular patter that goes with it every time to cue the kids and help them anticipate what’s coming. (“North pole, south pole, east coast, west. Inside, outside, baby you’re the best!” “Twinkle, twinkle star so bright, yoga helps me sleep at night!”) There’s also a version of Ring Around the Rosy with touchy-feely yoga lyrics. (Hey, it is a little creepy to be singing about the plague.)

None of this is to say there aren’t things that are recognizably yoga poses in there, though they are shorter and usually assisted, and generally involve more motion than holding still. The tots start off with a half-moon stretch (one arm up over the head). Sprinkled throughout the class are things like sitting twists and a modified, supported bridge pose. Some of the older ones even adopt a version of the familiar thumb-to-middle- finger hand position as the class chants “Om.”

For the younger babies, who come in as the tots leave, it can resemble yoga a little more, as parents move their less-mobile charges through a series of poses—holding their baby’s knees into their chests to improve digestion, gently tugging arms and legs alternately to develop spatial awareness, rolling them back and forth to stimulate their own calming reflexes.

The “tykes”—ages 2 and 3—start focusing more on group participation (albeit still much more active than your average adult yoga class) and learning the names of poses.

Itsy Bitsy Yoga, the book, promises to help kids “sleep longer, digest better, and grow stronger” and includes “magic poses” known to frequently help quiet fussing babies. Though she trained with Garabedian and follows the model quite closely, Prescott presents a more subtle picture of the value of doing yoga with young kids. It “promotes bonding, positive reinforcement as boundaries are tested, a healthy body image, coordination and skill development that is age-appropriate, and lots of fun,” she lists. And for the parents, the class is “a time to be in community and learn from each other.”

“Sometimes,” she adds, parents “even get a few yoga stretches in.” But don’t count on it.

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts

Taking the Mineral Cure

Although Saratoga’s soothing baths reached the height of their popularity in the middle of the last century, two facilities carry on the Spa City hydrotherapy tradition

By Kirsten Ferguson


‘The more minerals in the water, the cooler the temperature,” says a bath attendant at the Roosevelt Baths and Spa in Saratoga Springs, as I stare at a deep tub filled with rust-colored water. The tub has two taps. One is for the cold, naturally carbonated mineral water that springs from a fault-riven layer of limestone underground. The other spews hot tap water that is used to bring the bath up to slightly over 90 degrees, a temperature that sufficiently warms the body but isn’t unpleasantly scorching.

The resulting mineral bath is so buoyant that short people like me are given a footstool to prop our feet against at the end of the long tub so we don’t float to the top. The deep baths—tubs are four inches lower than the floor—are taken by visitors throughout the year for their stress relieving, muscle relaxing, skin softening and overall body- warming benefits. Afterward, bathers are given warm sheets to wrap up in while reposing on beds for a period of time post-bath. A trip to the steam room before or after the bath helps clear out the pores, and the sinuses.

The Iroquois Indians who discovered the Saratoga-area springs believed that the mineral water had special healing powers and could cure actual physical ailments, as did many later bathers. This remains unproven, but bathing in the mineral water is thought to have certain health-enhancing effects. For instance, calcium and sodium bicarbonate, two minerals naturally present in the water, are said to enhance circulation.

Twittering bird calls and warbling flutes drift from the speaker above the tub during my $20 soak at the Roosevelt Bathhouse. It’s standard massage-table music, followed by the sounds of crashing ocean surf and contemplative piano. You can adjust the level of the music yourself, by tweaking a knob in the private bathroom that adjoins the private tub. Lit candles along the effervescent bath add to the element of relaxation, as do herbs and aromatherapy oils added to the water upon request—and for $6 more. (I do advise turning off the overhead light; it’s damn bright.)

Hydrotherapy, one of the oldest-known healing practices, refers to the use of water for treating illnesses and disease. The Roosevelt Bathhouse was built here in the Saratoga Spa State Park in the early 1930s with the support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as part of an ambitious, publicly owned, seven-building “hydrotherapy” complex, modeled after spas in Europe. Roosevelt frequently sought mineral baths for restorative soaks of his polio-wasted legs.

At the time, “taking the mineral cure,” as mineral-bathing was known, was a popular recreation and health treatment among wealthy visitors to Saratoga Springs, and the spas helped make the city the resort and vacation town that it remains today. At the heyday of Saratoga’s mineral-bath boom in the 1930s and ’40s, nearly 200,000 baths were taken a year at the complex. Today, only two facilities for mineral-bath seekers remain in Saratoga Springs: the Roosevelt, which is now operated by the Gideon Putnam Resort, and the Crystal Spa on South Broadway, which offers a “green tea soak” as part of the mineral-bath experience.

Meanwhile, the majestic Lincoln Baths on South Broadway, located next to the building housing the National Museum of Dance, which was also once a bathhouse, are now closed. State park police use the building as a headquarters. The Lincoln Baths closed after the Roosevelt Bathhouse reopened in 2004 following a multimillion dollar renovation. (While being renovated, the Roosevelt building served as a backdrop for the hospital in the Horse Whisperer.)

While still open, the Lincoln Baths provided a taste of what, one can imagine, the old-school “mineral cures” were all about. Although majestic on the outside, inside the Lincoln Baths had an austere, almost institutional feel, as if you were a patient in a sanatorium rather than a spagoer inside a luxury retreat. The Lincoln Baths were separated into women’s and men’s sides, with compartments for individual, free-standing white tubs from the 1930s, and benches for beds. While the Roosevelt Baths have private rooms, the compartments at the Lincoln Baths were open at the ceiling. (A friend who was once in town for a wedding visited the men’s side; he had a hard time relaxing during his bath due to the unmistakable sounds of a man moaning loudly in a tub nearby.)

There was a different standard of privacy at the Lincoln Baths as well. While the Roosevelt Bathhouse adheres to all the conventions of modern spa therapy—i.e. the attendants are never in the room while any dressing or disrobing is taking place—I distinctly recall an elderly woman attendant at the Lincoln Baths holding up a warm sheet and wrapping me in it as I exited, buck naked, from a claw tub there. The whole place had a “you’ll take your cure and like it” sort of vibe, as I imagine the first spa visitors to Saratoga Springs may have appreciated, with their thinly veiled health-as-an-excuse-for-a-party vacations to the spa city. Very Victorian. I think I miss it.

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