Saturday, February 10, 2007

Yoga in schools

Downward Dog Is Cat's Meow For At-Risk Kids
Boston Herald


January 30, 2007

Dennis Winn is principal of a hardscrabble New Bedford elementary school where three-quarters of the children qualify for free lunch. It's not the sort of place where you expect to hear success stories involving . . . yoga.

But Hathaway School's Dennis Winn has them.

One time during MCAS testing, he saw a student in the back of the classroom who looked like he was deep in thought, maybe even asleep. "What's happening?" Winn asked the child. "He told me he was `finding his center,' " Winn said, a technique the boy learned in a Hathaway yoga class.

"This is beautiful," Winn said he thought to himself. "I just had to smile."

Tim Donahue grew up in New Bedford in a troubled home. He lost a brother to a drug overdose. Yet he has yoga stories, too. That's because he's the yoga instructor in a half-dozen New Bedford schools and runs the nonprofit Yoga Kids ( out of his Marion home.

There was the third-grade girl who suffered panic attacks whenever the fire alarm rang. Yet with yoga breathing techniques, she learned to calm herself, he said.

There was the child born to a crack-addicted mother who likewise learned to calm himself, to sit up straight and stop shaking. And there have been many children, Donahue says, who've begun doing yoga breathing meditation at home. They tell him it helps so much they're able to cut down on medication for attention deficit disorder, other anxiety-based ailments, and cope better with difficult families.

"I led a meditation to settle your heart down," Donahue says, "to let it beat nice and slow. The class got so incredibly quiet, when I ended it, no one moved, as if they felt so calm they wanted to stay there. And these were fourth-graders, some from pretty rough situations.

"This is why I love coming here, to teach these skills to kids at an early age."

OK, you grown-up yogis who've made yoga the rage across America: Feel vindicated. What's happening in New Bedford - yoga kids, says Winn, who are "more reflective, who focus better, solve problems better and pay closer attention" in class, thus getting better grades - is part of a national trend.

Increasing numbers of public and private schools from here to California are getting grants or public money to begin yoga classes in lower grades. They're finding what Winn and Donahue have: calmer students, help with the national epidemic - obesity - and fewer discipline problems.

One California report found that test scores and fitness levels at an inner-city Los Angeles charter school went up while behavior problems went down.

In the West and Midwest, yoga's Eastern mystical Hindu roots - its lotus and down dog position and chanting "om" - has caused backlash among certian fundamenalist Christian parents. They fret that yoga conflicts not only with separation of church and state, but underminds Christianity itself.

To avoid any uproar, one yoga teacher changed the names of certian yoga practives to kid-friendly, nonreligious terms. Yoga panting became "bunny breathing," and "meditation" became "time in."

Donahue, who's been teaching yoga in schools for six years now, said in all the classes he's taught, "only a few kids had said `I can't do this' because of religion.

"But meditation basically is about calming your mind down. It's about positions that strengthen and stretch. There isn't any religion involved in my classes."

What's involved, he says, is teaching them skills to handle stress, "and finding a little inner focus as opposed to what they're used to, everything coming at them from the outside, so fast," like video games and TV and computers and iPods, everything else wired.

"It takes them a little while to understand," he said, "but once they get it, they learn how to have some time in their lives that is quiet, and peaceful.

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