As the sun sets on Hollywood beach, fingers and toes touch down on colorful mats atop the warm, golden sand. Bodies bend and sway, as Jimmy Buffett songs croon from the boardwalk.
Suddenly, giggles break out, as kids and teens work their way into the “dancing lion” pose. These young yogis are taking Miriam Amselem’s yoga class. And while they’re having fun, they’re also learning to cope with the pressures of student life.
“High school is really stressful,” says Jeni Tache, 15, of Hollywood, who attends Katz Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton. “Yoga helps me relax.”
Holistic nutritionist, yoga instructor and mother, Amselem, 51, believes that kids and teens who practice yoga and meditation will be better equipped to handle stress and anxiety in their daily lives. “In today’s world, all the computers, phones and instant pictures can be a major cause of stress,” Amselem says. “During meditation, I say: Close your eyes, just listen. They get into a little zone. It definitely eases anxiety.”
Amselem says yoga also helps develop auditory skills, which, she says, “are being lost, because everything is visual nowadays.”
More and more studies have found evidence that meditation can have lasting benefits on young people, from scientific journals like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to peer-reviewed studies. They show that practicing mindfulness, or being conscious of one’s present state of being through meditation, helps improve brain development and behavior while increasing one’s “self-awareness and self-regulation.”
South Florida psychologist Lori Ben-Ezra sees children in her Hollywood practice who are struggling academically and emotionally. For patients who have issues with self-esteem, self-control or attention, she recommends yoga because of its mind/body connection.
“It’s really good for kids who struggle with self-control issues and who may not be cut out for team sports,” she says. “Everybody can do yoga. You don’t have to shoot the basketball well or run fast; everything happens on your mat. Nobody puts you down. It’s accepting. You take that time-out and then can go back to your homework or to school with a clearer mind, less anxiety and more focus.”
Yoga also promotes bonding as a family, she says, since everybody can do it together.
“A lot of families these days don’t spend a whole lot of time together,” she says, “so to take an hour or hour and a half and do something that’s physically and mentally healthy together is great.”
Local hospitals and outpatient facilities are also incorporating yoga into their wellness regimes. Occupational therapist Gema Salvaggio has been teaching yoga to kids and teens at the Nicklaus Children’s Doral Outpatient Center for three years. The biggest benefit she sees in those who start yoga at an early age is more self-confidence.
“Not all kids are good at sports,” she says, “but with yoga you can go at your own pace and be successful individually.”
The center’s yoga program takes place one to two times a week, in 12-week sessions, each summer, spring and fall. It’s divided into two groups: one for teens and one for children.
Baptist Health South Florida has been incorporating yoga in its group fitness programs for about 10 years. Danny Elfenbein, community health manager for Baptist, says the demand for yoga has skyrocketed from two to three classes a few years ago to 12 weekly classes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. All are free and open to the public.
“The paradigm that exists for young children, preteens and teens, from a physical, mental and social perspective,” he says, “is that yoga becomes a prevention measure for stress reduction.’’
Baptist underwrites Bayfront Park Trust’s 6 p.m. Monday and Wednesday yoga classes, and partners with Green Monkey to host yoga classes at A.D. Barnes Park, 3401 SW 72nd Ave., every Saturday at 9 a.m.
A study published last July in Biological Psychiatry showed physical changes in the brain in people who practiced meditation. Among those who practiced meditation, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for memory, planning, organization, regulation and control, showed increased activity during brain scans, and more communication with other parts of the brain responsible for reactions to stress.
Anniel Nagler, a pediatric physical therapist at Achieve Therapy in Hollywood, sees the benefits of kids and teens who practice yoga.
“It helps them gain flexibility and stability and helps them understand the way the body should feel when it’s in proper alignment,” she says. “It’s so important because it sets them on the path for longevity, of having flexibility and stability in the long term.”
“It helps me because I’m a gymnast,” says 9-year-old Abby Tache, who with her sister, Jeni, attended Amselem’s sunset yoga class on a recent weekday. “When I’m on the balance beam, it helps me with balance and posture and I picture myself at the beach and it helps get me across the beam. If I’m stressed, it calms me down.”
Adina Ciment, head of the English department at Katz Yeshiva, knows all about the stress students face in competitive high schools in South Florida.
“It’s not just homework and peer pressure,” she says. “It’s college, who’s getting what grade in what course, what college is going to accept me or reject me, how my life’s going to fall apart at the end of 11th grade … AP scores, SATs, ACTs … it’s constant.”
Amselem acknowledges the students’ stress, but then tells her class: “Come back to this moment of relaxation, take deep breaths and let everything go.”
“It’s important to be outdoors,” she adds. “We’re always indoors. We live in paradise. And there’s no Wi-Fi here.”
Yoga classes for kids
▪ Miriam Amselem teaches yoga to adults, teens and children three times a week in front of the Hollywood Beach Marriott, 2501 N. Ocean Dr. For rates, class times and dates, email her at email@example.com.
▪ Nicklaus Children’s Doral Outpatient Center, 3601 NW 107th Ave., holds yoga classes for children 4 and older. Cost is $200 per child for 12 one-hour sessions. Call 786-624-5279 to register.
▪ Baptist Health South Florida’s Free Community Exercise Programs: BaptistHealth.net/Exercise.