Minnesota students acing yoga test

  • Article by: SARAH MORAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2009 - 4:57 PM

More Minnesota schools are offering yoga for students, but kids are learning more than poses such as downward dog. Educators say yoga can give students an academic boost.

At Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis, Sophia Stevens takes part in a yoga class. Proponents say the classes help kids calm themselves, find quiet in a “noisy” world, learn introspection and improve their focus.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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It's just another day in gym class, and 50 calm and focused sixth-graders are breathing deeply in and out. They sit cross-legged on colorful yoga mats, eyes closed and hands resting on their knees as soothing music plays in the background.

"Inhale slowly ... and exhale, and feel your body fill with all that wonderful air," says their physical education teacher, Rochelle Gladu Patten. "We know that yoga is a practice that brings your body and mind and heart all together," she tells them. "And that's what yoga means -- to connect."

Every Tuesday and Thursday, students at Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis spend 20 minutes practicing yoga poses in Patten's class. It's just one of many Minnesota schools embracing yoga as word spreads about its benefits for students. More than 100 schools in the state have staff members trained to teach yoga to kids of all ages.

And what do the participants have to say about all this?

Siobhan O'Leary, a fifth-grader at Jefferson Elementary in Minneapolis, is a fan because it helps her feel relaxed. "You can use yoga to calm down anytime or if you're having a bad time," she said. Every morning, her entire school practices deep breathing in unison with the help of the PA system, and they also use yoga throughout the day, including to help kids calm down before standardized tests.

"It's just one part of the day when you can sit down and relax and not have to worry about anything," said fifth-grader Sophia Meza. The 10-year-old said yoga helped her and a friend work through recent deaths in their families. "It helped us kind of let go and let out our feelings," she said. "It wasn't stuck inside us anymore."

Jesse Foster, a second-grader at Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary in St. Paul, said yoga is fun. Plus, during and after practice, he feels "happy." The school uses yoga in the classroom, during small-group activities outside the classroom and as an alternative recess.

More educators are embracing yoga's principles and methods and touting its benefits: improved self-esteem, self-awareness, acceptance and focus; learning to quiet the mind and shift to positive, peaceful thinking; better posture, flexibility, balance and coordination, and an increased ability to cope with strong emotions and calm down. Studies have linked yoga in schools to better grades, behavior, health and relationships among students.

In the past couple of years there has been a notable growth of yoga in schools, and that trend is continuing, said Marsha Wenig, who has taught yoga in schools for more than 20 years and is founder of YogaKids International, an Indiana-based international program that trains educators and parents to teach kids yoga. Educators don't need a yoga background; they just need to go through a good training program, she said. And yoga can be used for as little as two minutes or as long as 45 minutes with students of all ages.

Although some students are hesitant at first or take a while to get comfortable, many quickly grab onto the opportunity for quiet and calm in an increasingly noisy and chaotic world, educators said.

"Kids like to move, and the need for movement is critical," said Kathy Flaminio, a school social worker, registered yoga teacher and a trainer with Yoga Calm, another program that teaches educators to teach yoga to kids. "Yoga just regulates the system," she said. "It brings hyper kids to the center, and lethargic kids wake up."

"You're changing the nervous system, and we know that if kids are stressed they're not using the entire brain to learn," she said. "When we slow down the nervous system and they're able to be calm, they open up and are better learners."

Yoga can be particularly helpful for kids with disabilities or with learning and behavior challenges, teachers said.

"I find that students with disabilities have a hard time letting themselves relax," said James Anderson, developmental adaptive physical education specialist for the Minneapolis School District. "But they do it enough and they find out, 'OK, I can relax,' and they like it."

Teaching students yoga can provide lifelong skills and ideas for lifelong learning, Patten said. "We talk about stress and slowing your breath and learning to relax your muscles and calm yourself when you're upset or angry or frightened," she said. "We talk about how this is a very individual practice, it's not competitive and there isn't any wrong way to do it -- everybody's always growing and changing in yoga."

Sarah Moran is a freelance health writer in Minneapolis.

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