By Danielle Braff, Special to Tribune Newspapers
5:06 PM EST, February 15, 2012
On any given day at Coconut Creek Elementary school in Florida, it's likely that you'll find the children in an unlikely position: downward dog.
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.
But the child-focused classes are very different. After all, it would be difficult to persuade a child to hold each pose silently for upward of 5 minutes while concentrating on nothing but his or her breath.
So instead, they are instructed to look like their favorite animal — and hold that crouching position. Or, they are led through a story based on the yoga postures, Hawk said. They might even color in pictures of people doing yoga positions so they become more familiar with the various moves.
Soothe vs. remove stressors
Not everyone is so convinced of yoga's magical cure for children, however.
Dr. Michelle Riba, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and past president of the American Psychiatric Association, said teaching yoga to children for stress relief is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a tumor.
"One might say, 'Why don't we de-stress them instead of doing something to fix the stress,'" Riba said. "It's like giving a medicine — and then giving another medicine to fix the side effects. Maybe people should look at trying not to put so much stress on the children."
Cutting back on after-school activities would be the first step, Riba said.
But at a time when "tiger mom" is a household name, it's hard to be the mother who's keeping her children at home instead of at music class.
So yoga gives them the tools they need to take a break, no matter what they're doing.
"It's easy for kids to feel overwhelmed with busy schedules, academics, hectic home lives and increased social pressures," said Laurie Jordan, director of kids programs at Kaia Yoga in Connecticut. "Yoga helps them release excess energy, tension and stress while instilling a sense of calm, and helping kids develop self-awareness and self-soothing techniques which they can use in any situation."
Easy yoga positions for kids
Give your kid a quick fix with these easy yoga poses designed for children by Lisa Flynn, founder of ChildLight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms, which are programs used in schools nationwide.
Big white star visualization: While lying in bed — or even sitting up with your head resting on your desk, imagine a big, bright, white star. Let the light of the star travel to your head, your shoulders and down your body, filling you with light and love with each breath. Notice how it feels to be filled completely with love.
Washing machine: Standing with your legs hip distance apart, keep everything from your waist down still while you swing your arms back and forth like a washing machine. Close your eyes, and try to wash away any bad thoughts with your washing machine. Go back to the standing position, and with an inhale, lift your arms up. Exhale and bring them back down to your sides.
Mountain pose: Stand tall and strong like a mountain, and find something to focus your eyes on. Inhale, and raise your shoulders to your ears. Exhale, and lower them down again. Inhale, and lift your arms up over your head. Exhale, and reach your arms to one side, feeling a nice stretch. Concentrating on your breath, do the same to the other side.
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