The task was daunting for the classroom of Minneapolis third-graders: maintaining their balance as they walked across a set of fitness blocks, eyes closed, with only the hands of their classmates as guides.
The practice demanded trust, mindfulness and, of course, the occasional exclamation.
“So scary!” one third-grader cried out while navigating the blocks at Pratt Community School, flanked by two peers for support.
“Are we at the end?” another asked.
This exercise is part of a yoga instruction called Yoga Calm, brought to all of Pratt’s third- to fifth-grade classrooms and to schools around the metro by St. Paul-based 1000 Petals. Pratt has seen an uptick in children dealing with stressful home situations, such as unstable housing, homelessness, family deaths and living in unsafe neighborhoods, said school Principal Nancy Vague. She said she hopes the calming strategies can help students better manage their emotions and behaviors.
Students around the metro have been morphing into young yogis for years, but educators now have a better sense of how practicing yoga can help kids manage stress from issues they face at home and at school, said Kathy Flaminio, founder and president of 1000 Petals.
The movements are purposeful. For example, a tree pose isn’t just a stance, but a way for kids to feel safe within their bodies, she explained.
“Our whole theme today was grounding — how to stay connected, what it means in your body, what to think about when kids are worrying about all these things,” Flaminio said after instructing a class at Pratt last week.
The company has taken its Yoga Calm techniques to schools in other states like Colorado and Illinois, but it’s also introduced the techniques to students in other Twin Cities schools, including ones in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, South Washington County and St. Paul. The benefits of the practice extend beyond alleviating anxiety. Yoga can also boost focus, self-esteem and academic performance, research shows.
“Just about understanding the positive impact on our kids, we’re excited about that,” Vague said.
Coping with stress
Yoga Calm isn’t Pratt’s first foray into mindfulness. For some time, Vague has used the meditation app “Headspace” with students who may need calm-down moments.
After securing an innovation grant from the Minneapolis Public Schools, Pratt welcomed 1000 Petals for a six-week moving and learning residency, which included a workshop for teachers. The school’s physical education teacher gets more instruction and can keep rolling out the skills even when the 1000 Petals sessions end.
Before the training, when kids didn’t know how to deal with challenges, Vague said, they would sometimes flee to a corner of the room or sometimes even out of the classroom.
Yet downward-facing dog and the warrior pose in schools haven’t come without complaints. Yoga’s roots are in Hinduism in India, and the movement drifted westward. School leaders, nervous about the ties between religion and the public schools, are mindfully staying away from yogic mantras and chants of “om.”
In 2013, parents of two students in California filed a lawsuit against the Encinitas Union School District, saying that yoga is a religious exercise that public schools shouldn’t teach. Courts ruled that the district’s health and wellness program was not religious. The Yoga Calm exercises in classrooms around the Twin Cities will not have religious touches, Flaminio said.
On a recent morning, student Fahim Abdurhamn stood in the middle of the classroom and banged out a beat on a hand drum as the kids went through a cycle of poses, stretching out their bodies. Flaminio, who was teaching at Pratt, told the kids to push themselves up into the cobra pose with their chests sticking out — except she called it the “snake,” and the whole classroom hissed in unison.
The Pratt kids initially giggled noisily while twisting into yoga poses on mats, but later fell into a hush of relaxation when the hourlong exercise wound down. They lay together in a circle, feet inward. Calming music floated in the background.
And then the session was over, and kids were out the door to continue on with their day — perhaps with a new mind-set.