YOUTH FITNESS

With FCATs looming, selected South Florida schools are using yoga exercises to help stressed students relax.

 

hsampson@MiamiHerald.com

Blue mats covered the floor, shoes lined the wall and 21 bodies in stocking feet followed instructor Kim Rich through poses with names like mountain, warrior and cobra.

It could have been a scene from any neighborhood gym, but these yoga students were in the third grade. The studio was a classroom at Davie Elementary School.

Yoga isn't just for stressed-out grown-ups anymore. Schools in South Florida and across the country are incorporating elements of the ancient exercise into the school day to help students focus, relax and get fit.

Companies offering a yoga curriculum and teacher training have cropped up nationwide, with some adding academics into stretches.

Rich, Davie Elementary's health and wellness teacher, picked this time of year -- Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test season -- because kids are under a lot of pressure.

''I think that this gives them confidence,'' she said. ``It teaches them how to relax.''

Third-grader Cindy Jimenez said it works.

''This class helps us relax a lot,'' said Cindy, 10. ``The FCAT is coming soon, and I'm really nervous.''

Rich incorporated science and math into poses by talking about a butterfly's antennae, asking kids how many sides a triangle has or describing how a leg should be bent at a 90-degree angle.

It's a different kind of FCAT prep, she said: ``We have to develop the whole kid, the mind and body.''

Classes focus on breathing and stretching exercises with kid-friendly names like downward dog, lion and butterfly.

Carol Rowe, grandmother of an 8-year-old at the school and president of the parent-teacher organization, peeked in on one of Rich's classes recently and said she was tempted to kick off her shoes and join in.

''It's good for the kids,'' Rowe said. ``They need the stress relief.''

Parents have long complained about pressure students face because of the FCAT, which determines whether a school is rated excellent or failing, and which can prevent third-graders from being promoted if they don't pass.

The next round of FCAT testing starts Monday.

FCAT PRESSURE

In class recently, Rich asked students to raise their hands if they had stress in their life. Every single student raised a hand.

''They just feel anxious,'' said Davie Assistant Principal April Schentrup. ``They have a lot of work. They absolutely need downtime.''

Fifth-grade teacher Cheryl Carter has already told her students she will take the class with them. And her 10-year-old son Brady, a fifth-grader at Davie, is such a fan that he's led his 6-year-old twin siblings in poses.

''My son is crazy about it,'' she said. ``He's making me buy him the video.''

Teachers at Coral Gables Elementary School started doing yoga exercises with kids in prekindergarten through first grade this school year.

TIME TO BREATHE

About 200 kids are participating; their teachers were trained last summer through a program called YogaKids. Students do poses and breathing exercises between different subjects or after coming back from the playground.

''It helps them stop and think about their breathing and self-discipline,'' said Principal Cheli Cerra. ``The kids love it. They think it's fun, but at the same time it helps them calm down.''

Middle and high school physical education teachers in Miami-Dade County have been taught how to incorporate yoga and pilates movements into warm-up exercises in gym class.

''It does stretch the body. It relieves the muscle tension. It is relaxing because it incorporates the breathing techniques,'' said Jayne Greenberg, the Miami-Dade school district's director for physical education and health literacy.

She said the exercises also help students focus -- something they're told to do before taking tests.

''We don't teach students to concentrate, and we expect them to be able to concentrate,'' she said.

In Broward, a DVD program called Spoga4Kids, which stands for ''spunky, playful yoga,'' is available to all third-grade classroom teachers.

The school district introduced the workout program -- there are five 15-minute segments -- last school year as part of its Commit 2B Fit effort.

Elly Zanin, the district's physical education curriculum specialist, said a greater effort will be made over the summer to let teachers know the DVDs are available and demonstrate how they can be used.

She said yoga moves can either help students relax or give them energy.

''The deep breathing, the stretching -- it is for whole-body wellness,'' she said.

RELIGION-FREE

Though yoga has religious connotations in the East, it has become popular mainly as a form of exercise in the United States, shedding spirituality along the way.

Officials and teachers in Miami-Dade and Broward stress that they focus on the exercises associated with yoga and leave out religious elements; none have heard any complaints.

''That's pretty much why deliberately we say we teach yoga moves and not yoga,'' said Greenberg, from the Miami-Dade school district.

''We're just really talking about moving the kids and talking about healthy bodies in a playful way,'' said Melinda Lee, who created Spoga4Kids.

In Rich's Davie class, students moved easily through the hero, downward dog, triangle and warrior poses. They perched on their knees, made upside-down V's with their bodies, reached fingers to toes and stood strong with arms stretched out.

Cobra, a back bend, was 10-year-old Harvey Myers' favorite. ''I like the cobra because I like to stretch back. . . . Every time I stretch back, I feel good,'' he said.

At the end of the class, Rich told the students ''Namaste,'' a South Asian greeting she defined to the class as ``I respect you.''

Jazlyne Carreon, 10, had three words of her own to sum up the class.

''Yoga,'' she said, ``is cool.''

Read more Broward stories from the Miami Herald

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