Claudia Sachs visits Yogaville. Photo courtesy Roberta Oster Sachs
When our daughter, Claudia, was 5 years old, we signed her up for a week at a very different kind of summer camp. Instead of soccer, tennis or basketball, she would be doing yoga, tree climbing and meditation. We knew Claudia would benefit from learning yoga poses and gaining flexibility at a young age, but we had no idea that the camp director and yoga teacher, Lydia Nitya Griffith — known as Miss Nitya — would transform the way Claudia saw herself, and the world.
"Reach up to the sky and tickle the clouds, down to the ground, pat the ground, jump back into dog — ruff, ruff, ruff — down into snake — hiss, hiss …" This is part of the "Sun Salutation" song Miss Nitya uses to teach the kids how to move into yoga poses. She turns the poses into animal characters: there's Slinky the Fox, who moves from side to side; there's the snake, slithering up and down, stretching his neck up high and arching his back; there's "bunny breathing," where the kids do fast, short yoga breaths to get their heart rate going and bring clarity and focus to their minds. Then there's the frog pose, where they hop, hop, hop up and down on their colorful yoga mats.
On the drive home from camp, Claudia would often sing in the back seat. She said, "Mommy, these are Miss Nitya's songs, and they tell stories about animals and nature and how we are joined together with nature." I could feel her excitement in the discovery of this new world.
During the past four years, Claudia has attended yoga camp for a month every summer, and she takes a kids yoga class once a week during the school year with Miss Nitya. As a busy 10-year-old who also takes piano lessons and sings in a choir, Claudia organizes her entire schedule around her yoga classes. Now she can do most of the poses, and she knows how to breathe deeply from her belly to relax and calm herself down. She has learned how yogis see the world, with a giving, loving energy respecting Mother Earth, each other and our own bodies.
At yoga camp, Miss Nitya serves homemade, organic vegetarian meals using all local produce, and teaches the kids about healthy eating. The campers also go on field trips for swimming, tree climbing, picking up trash, hiking along the James River and walking meditation, and they visit the Satchidananda Ashram at Yogaville in Buckingham County.
Claudia often comes home from camp with a smile in her eyes and a calm in her spirit. She has developed an understanding of karma yoga, which is doing good deeds for others without the expectation of recognition. She also brings her yoga practice into her relationships. When I start to raise my voice if I'm angry, Claudia reminds me, "Miss Nitya would tell us to take a breath, Mommy, and come back to the problem when we are more relaxed." On many occasions, Claudia has channeled Miss Nitya, saving our family from a confrontation.
Miss Nitya teaches kids how to defuse uncomfortable situations, such as dealing with frustrated parents, and also how to untangle their own childhood angst. I asked Claudia how she does that, and she responded, "Miss Nitya tells us that if we feel disconnected from each other, or alone, we should remember that every living thing and every person is one big family."
At one class, I heard Miss Nitya ask the kids, "What does yoga breathing do for us?" A 7-year-old responded, "It helps us to calm down and quiet our thoughts." At the end of the class, Miss Nitya gathers the children around her in a circle. Like little ducklings surrounding a mama duck, the kids sit in rapt attention as she reads a story, always with a moral lesson. I marvel at how a group of seven children, ages 4 to 8, are completely engaged and focused in the moment.
When Claudia turned 9, Miss Nitya told her she was old enough to decide whether she felt ready to move to the next level, the teen class. Miss Nitya gently suggested, "Claudia, you have learned so much, and you have more to learn. In teen class, you will go into self inquiry, and practice hatha yoga like the adults. You will learn what it is to be a young woman and how to respect and love your body. Give it a try."
Claudia didn't want to give up the children's songs and stories, but she tried it, and now she is fully immersed in the teen class. She can do the bridge pose — her belly high up in the air and her arms and legs firmly on the floor, her flexible spine curved like a crescent moon. Flowing from pose to pose, Claudia has learned how to be a good listener, how to ask questions and how to think and advocate for herself.
When a friend at school was teasing her for wearing a sweatshirt with Dora the Explorer on it, making fun of what she called a "babyish" design, Claudia was very upset, but she was able to look past it. She said, "I know my friend said a hurtful thing, but she didn't mean to hurt. She has a good heart." Claudia never wore that Dora sweatshirt again, but she gained confidence and learned forgiveness.
At nearly 6 feet tall with long brown hair, high cheekbones and a yogi's fit body, Miss Nitya radiates positive energy. As I watch Claudia; her cousin, Olivia; and their friends grow and evolve after years of taking "Yoga with Nitya" classes, I hope that other children will have an opportunity to share in this experience. Claudia says, "Yoga is not just stretching and moving around; it is a way of living." It's something she brings into the world every day. And, she adds, "Yoga is magic."
Miss Nitya offers classes during the school year, as well as summer camp. To learn more, visit yogawithnitya.com .
Roberta Oster Sachs is president of Oster Sachs Communications, a media and consulting firm in Richmond