Yoga in the classroom
The elements of stress relief are catching on for even the youngest kids — many of whom face intensifying obligations in daily life
YoKid yoga instructor Erica Montoya (center right, facing camera) leads a group of Henderson Middle School (Richmond, Va) students through a 45 minute after-school yoga class. Photographed Monday afternoon, February 13, 2012. (Skip Rowland Photography, Inc., Chicago Tribune)
They lean on their hands with their bottoms in the air, swaying and breathing and centering themselves. Then, they curl up into child's pose and listen to their breath while steadying their heart rates.
In the coming weeks, their yoga practice will intensify to help the children deal with No Child Left Behind testing in March.
"There's a lot of high-stakes testing for No Child Left Behind," said Deborah Collins, a Florida-based school psychologist and co-developer of the yoga program. "A lot of the decisions are based on how they do, and the test is administered once a year. It creates a lot of tension."
To prevent the students from becoming too stressed — and to help them focus before the big day — schools throughout the country are counting on a technique that adults have long employed to deal with demanding work and home situations: yoga.
A study by California State University researchers in Los Angeles found that practicing yoga helps students' academic performance, overall health and behavior.
And teachers and parents are hoping this new yoga fanaticism in schools will help foster calmer, saner, healthier children.
"Today, children are stressed about everything," said Michelle Kelsey Mitchell, yoga instructor and executive director of YoKid, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that brings yoga to schools for underserved children. "Our kids are overscheduled, they have a full day at school, and oftentimes they have a multitude of activities that they're involved in after school and on the weekends. They don't necessarily get a break, and when they do get a break, it's in front of the TV or it's playing a video game, which isn't a true break for them."
The added pressure of bullying issues, combined with a decrease in sports and outdoor activities can even lead to stressed-out, sleep-deprived 3-year-olds, said Jillian Moriarty, a Minnesota-based yoga instructor and creator of Happily Ever Active, a brand consisting of yoga gear and DVDs.
That's where yoga comes in.
But what do the kids actually do?
Yoga gives children breathing techniques and calming methods that they're able to call upon whenever life gets overwhelming, Mitchell said. And the inverted postures increase blood flow to the sleep centers of their brains, which helps them get a more restorative sleep at night.
In Mitchell's classes, she teaches kids ages 3 to 18 to lie down without sleeping. They learn how to appreciate their bodies and how to relax mindfully.
Mitchell even recommends starting yoga for the diaper set. She does stretching and breathing exercises with her infant.
"It can be anything from physically moving and stretching them, or taking opposite fingers to opposite toes, hugging them close and breathing deeply with them," she said. "They sleep better, they cry a little less, and they seem to be overall more happy."
While there aren't any statistics as to how many schools are bringing yoga to their students, the anecdotal evidence of yoga in the schools appears to be growing, and it's being offered in public schools, private schools and after school.
It's especially crucial that children take the time to breathe and relax now, said Feather Hawk, a children's yoga instructor at Ananda Kula, a Florida yoga studio.
"Everything today is constant stimulation, from the Internet to the television," he said. "They need to take an hour to disconnect and make room for play and self-expression."
The parents who usually drag their little ones into the studio tend to take yoga classes themselves, and they understand how important it is to take the time to decompress, Hawk said.