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Yoga at School Poses a Learning Opportunity

Classroom: Teachers note calming effect, better concentration among their students.

April 28, 2002|KAREN ALEXANDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — It is getting close to lunchtime, and Cathy Klein's second-grade class at Daniel Webster Elementary School is feeling a little wiggly.

When Klein asks them to put down their pencils and find some personal space around the classroom for yoga, they jump to it. Soon they are breathing deeply, in through their noses and out through their mouths. With determined looks, they are earnestly stretching and balancing their little bodies into poses named for animals and shapes: new moon, kangaroo, seahorse and ostrich.

When they stretch out on the floor 20 minutes later for the final cocoon pose, a resting position, their wiggles are gone. They are calm and focused, and they sit cross-legged and smiling to answer questions about the yoga exercises that have become commonplace in their classroom--and at several other schools across San Francisco.

"It makes me feel great, because we're doing like the animal does," said 7-year-old Willy Rosales. "The anteater is my favorite. You get to stretch your legs, and you can stretch your arms all the way around."

ABC Yoga Teaches Students 12 Poses

While adults are flocking to yoga classes in record numbers, these students are benefiting from a 5-year-old program in San Francisco that aims to teach schoolteachers yoga proficiency so they can take its benefits into the classroom.

The brainchild of U.S. Yoga Assn. founder and San Francisco Yoga Studio executive director Tony Sanchez, the program has trained dozens of teachers so far.

Sanchez and his wife, Sandy Wong, started the program pro bono, and it has expanded with grants from the San Francisco Education Fund and other foundations. Teachers from two additional schools will be trained starting in September, and the couple are applying for a federal grant that would enable them to reach every district school.

"School itself can be stressful, and a lot of these children come from dysfunctional families or one-parent families. The stress their parents experience transfers to them," said Sanchez.

"One of the basics of yoga is to be giving, and we decided that it was something we should do instead of just using yoga to make money. We felt we should be giving something back."

Sanchez and Wong hope that their yoga regimen will become a model for schools throughout the Bay Area. Their program, called ABC Yoga, teaches children 12 poses.

Some teachers take it a step further with the Yoga Science Box, a curriculum designed by Wong, which incorporates yoga into lessons on physics, geometry and anatomy.

For example, Wong said, students can use the triangle pose to study the Pythagorean theorem, or calculate the amount of power used in a finger stand.

"Whenever you can integrate the curriculum with movement or with doing other things, it just gives the kids a broader understanding," said Craig Strong, a third-grade teacher at the private Cathedral School for boys in San Francisco and a yoga teacher at Sanchez's studio.

"I can tell them, 'Make sure your leg is at a 90-degree angle or perpendicular to the floor,' and they are learning. Or we can talk about the muscles we are using and the respiratory system, and they are learning."

Program 'Helps to Center Kids'

Gloria Siech, who heads the physical education program for the San Francisco Unified School District, says yoga is a powerful fitness tool for young people because it is low-stress and noncompetitive.

"It's individual, and each kid can do it as far as they can go.There's no keeping score, and there's nobody telling them that's not good enough," Siech said. "It helps to center kids and helps them concentrate. They are able to calm down and breathe, and the teachers see the improvement immediately."

Other schools around the country, including the Accelerated School in South-Central Los Angeles, have introduced yoga to their students as well. The teachers can offer no data on whether yoga helps children learn, but they have no doubt it improves their students' concentration.

"To me it's amazing to see a child who has a high level of anger or anxiety just do this and let go," said teacher Klein in San Francisco.

"These kids experience very high stress, and they have anxiety among each other and anxiety from home. They didn't understand it at first. They would just do it because I told them to. But then I could see them start focusing. Now they ask for yoga."

Phyllis Camp, a physical education teacher at James Lick Middle School, was among the first group of teachers to be trained in Sanchez's pilot program in 1997. She has used yoga with her students ever since, even offering after-school yoga clubs that are open to parents and teachers as well.

"It's so helpful at this age," Camp said. "They are finding their bodies, and their bodies are changing so much. This helps them appreciate the diversity around them. In one class you can have a very tall kid and a heavy-set kid and a kid with some physical limitations all doing the same poses. It's very unifying for them."

Camp's sixth-grade students file into the gymnasium in their P.E. uniforms for a brief yoga session before heading out to the yard to play sports.

"At first I thought yoga was going to be a religion, and I didn't want to do the class," said 12-year-old Tanya Bendana. "Then when I learned what it was, I liked it a lot. I got stronger. I didn't used to have these muscles," she said, pointing to her calves. "Now they are strong."

Ebrahaim Algubcani said yoga has helped him to manage conflicts with his family. "The breathing is very cool," he said. "If you're nervous or you have a fight with your mom or dad, it makes you feel not angry."

"Yoga has always been able to evolve to meet the needs of the society that practices it," Sanchez said. "This is just one more example."

More information about the ABC Yoga series is available at the Web site www.usyoga.org.

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