Cultural awareness of yoga has grown tremendously in the U.S. in the past decade, enough that Andrea and Trevor Allen can even see it in a place like Mesa, Arizona, where they moved last year. What was once a rigorous practice for spiritual seekers is now recommended by doctors for health and longevity. Gyms offer yoga classes, where frail seniors and injured Charles Atlases rub shoulders with sorority sisters and stay-at-home moms.
The phenomenal success of Marsha Wenig's YogaKids is a testament to the power of this new form of yoga. Peppy, goofy, physical, and fast-paced, YogaKids helps get children excited about stretching and breathing techniques, and is ideal for four- to eight-year-olds. Basic elements that make yoga more than aerobics - breathing, mindfulness, balance, and even stillness - are all there.
We tried YogaKids a few months ago, but at two and a half, Z wasn't quite ready for it. The videos are recommended for kids ages 4-8, and we soon figured out why; the movements require too much coordination, they aren't repeated enough times, and the overall pace is too rapid for a toddler's way of thinking.
But the work of Andrea and Trevor Allen, Kids Musical Yoga, is a different story. Let's Go To the Jungle, a roughly twenty-five-minute yoga "routine" in which a handful of toddlers sit around on mats and giggle their way through a leisurely and limited series of modified yoga moves with a "fairy princess" (Andrea) and "her musical helper, Talon" (Trevor), is a DVD Z has watched from about 18 months of age with props at the ready: a yoga mat, a metal mixing bowl and wooden mallet to sub for a Tibetan "singing bowl," one of my button-up work shirts to wear as a cape when it's time to fly home from the jungle. Every move is accompanied by a simple, repetitive, happy song. That's why we love Kids Musical Yoga: It makes yoga accessible, and exciting, to a toddler.
"I think what propelled us from the beginning and even what we found [when we promoted our videos at the 2005 International Toy Fair in New York] was there really hasn't been much yoga for toddlers," Trevor said. "There's Mommy and Baby yoga, and there's YogaKids for really a more mature child, but there really hasn't been anything for toddlers, trying to capture their imagination and meet them on their level."
It has certainly worked with our daughter. Z wowed her extended family at her second birthday party with her ability to perform tree pose, downward dog, and other yoga moves. As amazing as it was to watch her show her stuff - a blend of determined effort and native toddler flexibility - we are even more amazed at home, where Z frequently asks for a clean, dry washcloth from the kitchen drawer so she can "do her relaxation." She lies down on her back on the floor, folds the washcloth in half, and places it over her eyes. Powerful stuff.
But bringing a new kids' product to market can be a dangerous proposition; many great ideas can be costly to implement, and parents are often in the worst position to suffer as entrepreneurs, since they tend to have significant financial entanglements, several mouths to feed, and young children to help raise. I had the idea a while ago to conduct a series of interviews with entrepreneurs who had brought kids' products to market, some failed and some successful, to find out what they had learned along the way. Most of my pitch emails to startup founders went unanswered, but one man, the inventor of a product I won't name for obvious reasons, was kind enough to send me a brief note:
Because of my invention I am 300,000 dollars in debt, unemployed and trying to figure out how to keep my house. All of this while raising children. My advice to parents with 'inventions' is, don't do it. It will **** up your life so bad that you will probably end up in the hospital, I did. License it or sell it but don't spend any money.A person's passion for their best ideas can trip them up. It can also be the thing that makes life worth living. At its core, creative expression - of which invention and product development is but one variety - involves a willingness to let your best ideas carry you, like a current, while you do your best to steer along the way. But this also involves a willingness to enter into that current with imperfect preparations limited by real-world constraints: an act of faith. Whether that act was visionary or just plain crazy is judged in hindsight as though it were an inevitable outcome that was, or should have been, anticipated by reason and sound thinking. But risk is anything but sound. If it was, it wouldn't be risky.
"I could have spent $20,000-$30,000 at a film school, even a practical film school producing films, or I could just produce my own film," Trevor said, and laughed. "So I did it the hard way."
A Dream Project
"Before we moved to northern California we worked at large corporations, sometimes together, sometimes not," said Trevor. "And we decided, you know, that that wasn't the way we wanted to live our lives. We got married because we love each other and wanted to be together, so why were we always apart? So we started looking around at what we really liked and thought about what we could do together that would have meaning for us. Andrea was already teaching yoga classes and I had always been into music, and one day we just had this epiphany."
The couple moved with their young daughter, Jaden, to Sebastopol, California, and Andrea began teaching yoga to young children in the area. Meanwhile, she and Trevor developed yoga routines that combined poses in narrative sequences that would appeal to kids, drawing on the evocative names of yoga poses, many of them named after the animals they loosely suggest. Cobra became snake, the "breath of fire" became a lion's roar. They then shaped these routines into scripts for their dream project: a series of videos to introduce toddlers to the world of yoga. "We were on fire," Trevor said. "I think the writing through everything else, it all came out within about six months."
Their game plan was simple: Pay for the first videos out of pocket, get picked up by a distributor, make the money back, and get funding for more titles. In the spring of 2004, the family was ready to produce their first two videos, Let's Go To The Jungle and Let's Go To The Ocean, and they hired a local film crew for two weeks of filming.
I asked them if the daughter mentioned on their website, Jaden, is one of the young kids in their videos, and got my first lesson in the kind of determination a yoga-loving mother had to have to get her project off the ground.
"She was going to be up until the day," Andrea said with a laugh. "She was only just two, she knew every song every movement, she practiced with us for the filming, but the day we were ready to start filming, she was all ready to film, all dressed up in her peace outfit, and she said, 'Mommy, hold me,' and I said, 'I'm sorry, you're fired,' and Grandma took her. It was just too much for her. We had two other kids who couldn't take it - it was really too intense. During our rehearsals we just played, and that's what we wanted to do, but when you add the lights and the cameras a couple of kids just had a hard time. So we ended up with the three kids for both videos."
"At $100 an hour on our limited budget, it's just what we had to do," Trevor added.
That $100 an hour was just the beginning. After filming, editing, and studio time spent recording Trevor's music, production cost the young couple roughly $25,000; by the time the packaging and design was completed, other expenses were accounted for, and they had boxes upon boxes of DVDs delivered to their Sebastopol home, that figure had climbed to $30K.
But even after this financial hit, they still had to promote their product. "We did a tour where we did different shows and marketing, and we went to the International Toy Fair in New York," Trevor said. "We were hoping on getting picked up by a bigger company or syndication on a network or something, to help us produce the other shows we wanted to make."
Despite their best efforts, Andrea and Trevor found that their gamble would not have a quick payoff. They didn't find a distributor at the Toy Fair, or afterwards, and relied on sales of their videos through their own website, kidsmusicalyoga.com, and Amazon.com to distribute their products. They supplemented the project by selling items related to their videos - gorgeous-looking Tibetan singing bowls, "fairy wings," yoga mats and the like.
Financially strapped and emotionally drained, the couple moved to Arizona to be near Andrea's family, and took other jobs to supplement their creative work. Now, in addition to offering yoga presentations at parties and events, Andrea is working in a family member's realtor's office. Trevor works as a civil engineer. Their daughter Jaden is almost five, and has twelve local cousins to play with.
"There' a huge influx of people from California," Trevor said on the phone from his home in Mesa, Arizona. "So that kind of changes the consciousness here. We were living here about five years ago before we had the idea to create Kids Musical Yoga and at that time Andrea was teaching yoga here, and everyone was like, 'What's yoga?' Now they're like, 'Oh yeah, yoga's great, you've got to do yoga.' It's becoming more mainstream."
That new surge of interest in yoga has, ironically, made some parents frustrated with their videos. "That's been one of the main criticisms of the videos: that we weren't focused completely on the intense physical aspects of the yoga," Trevor said. "Part of our thinking is that so much of yoga is so much more, especially at two years old - we think it's important to emphasize the ideas of sharing and the imagination and loving your body and being creative and using your body in all kinds of different ways."
So do they think that yoga is only beneficial if it's a spiritual practice?
"I think if you're going to do yoga at all you're going to get the byproduct of some spirituality - the breath, the inner peace, just come with doing yoga," he said. "But it's good to have that in your awareness and your intentions."
Like many dreams, this one has a lot of unfinished business. "We have a whole series that we have planned out," Andrea said. "We started with live performances, working with the children. Each week we had a different theme: 'Let's Go To The Ocean,' 'Let's Go To The Jungle,' 'Let's Go To The Desert' - we have all the songs written and produced for that. We have 'Let's Go To The Backyard,' we have 'Let's Go To The Castle,' where we do a trail through the forest, we do tree pose past the warriors and do warrior pose, dragon pose, we kind of take them through the castle. We've used that at birthday presentations. But as far as wanting to do another video, right now it's kind of on hold unless we have some monetary success that we could use to put into making another one."
Throughout our interview, the couple sounds happy, if a little bruised by their experience. Kids Musical Yoga sounds like something that is slowly receding into their past as they deal with their present. But like all dreams, it hangs on. Old friends inquire. People like me show up, asking questions. Web hosting fees come due; coding errors emerge during site revisions. Sales trickle in.
I asked them if they'd considered adopting a more DIY approach - filming new titles themselves and sharing them online, charging for them that way or offering them for free and seeking out some other outlet for profits, further developing their online store or seeking some Web 2.0 way to earn money from their media products. I offer some ideas.
"We've been so busy just making up for the year that we took off, that for us we keep coming back to how we really weren't able to put any effort into Kids Musical Yoga after that, as far as marketing or getting it out there," Trevor said. "For one, we've just been too focused on our other jobs. But we always do come back to, hey, how can we make this work, what are some other options... We always come back to that."
We recommend Kids Musical Yoga as a great starter yoga video for children up to four years old, and believe the videos are best used in conjunction with simple, short sessions of family yoga practice to help toddlers understand that engaging with yoga is an activity that is not limited to video-watching. You can see a sample video clip from Kids Musical Yoga on their website, and the two videos in the series are currently available on Amazon.com.