Kids get head start on yoga

Program: Children who attend the Meade Village Head Start center learn yoga poses and relaxation in a program tailored for youth.

April 07, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Head Start instructor Yolanda Oliver, her hands joined at the heart, bowed her head to her young pupils.

"Namaste," Oliver said to the room of preschoolers sitting cross-legged on purple yoga mats. "The good girl in me sees the good girls in you and the good boys in you."

"Namaste," the 15 boys and girls repeated, giggling as they bowed to Oliver and to one another.

Then -- their minds and bodies reinvigorated by the nearly hourlong yoga session -- they filed back into their classroom for playtime at the Meade Village Head Start center.

Oliver, a mental health coordinator for Head Start, teaches yoga to more than 400 Anne Arundel County children enrolled in the federal preschool program for low-income families.

Doing yoga helps the children gain self-awareness and achieve a sense of calm, Oliver said. "They have stressors in their life too," the 29-year-old instructor said after a class last week. "I want them all to respect each other. ... I want them to see that everyone has a light that shines within them."

The class is one of the few of its kind nationwide for Head Start, but Oliver hopes others will follow her example. Three hundred people have signed up for a workshop she is scheduled to give about the yoga program and other mental wellness strategies next month at the annual Head Start training conference in New York.

"Yoga has always been something associated with more affluent families who can pay for lessons," said Michael McGrady, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, which runs the annual conference. "The idea that we can bring something like that to Head Start children is great."

Oliver said she used to have her doubts about yoga, which has its roots in Hinduism. "I never really got into yoga because I thought it was more religious-based," she said.

Her interest was piqued a few years ago when she was working as a special education teacher in southern California. One day, she heard deep breathing sounds coming from beneath her desk and discovered one of her pupils, an 8-year-old boy, sitting under it. "He said, `I'm having a meltdown. I've got to do my yoga breath,'" she recalled.

Oliver began taking yoga classes after that and became certified to teach a children's version of yoga. The technique, developed by Virginia-based yoga guru Shakta Kaur Khalsa, uses storytelling and songs to lead children through breathing exercises and yoga poses.

In the multipurpose room at Meade Village Head Start last week, Oliver and her pupils, prone on their mats, warmed up with a pose called "cobra snake." They used their arms to hoist their chests off the ground, bent their legs toward their heads and made hissing noises.

Next, they acted out a tale about a group of villagers who climb a mountain to steal hidden gold, angering a bird who lives among the mountain's trees. To represent a mountain, the children made their bodies into A-shapes, their hands and feet planted on the ground.

They toppled over, giggling, while attempting the "tree" pose, which involves standing on one leg, with the other foot resting on the opposite inner thigh.

"I can't do it. I can't do it," chanted Naysa Reames, her tiny arms raised to mimic tree branches, as she struggled to keep her balance. She didn't fall.

Oliver said she tailors her lessons so that the pupils learn and enjoy themselves. One boy was upset about the villagers stealing gold, so Oliver changed the ending: In her version, the villagers apologize and win the bird's forgiveness. The teacher also made up a children's definition of namaste, a salutation usually translated as, "The divine in me honors the divine in you."

Parent June Gilbert said her son, 4-year-old Elijah, is fascinated by yoga. "My baby sat right in front of her," said Gilbert, after attending a class. "He just wanted to keep his eyes on her and do everything she did."

Gilbert said yoga has taught Elijah how to follow directions and be part of a group.

Oliver said the children get a lot out of the class, even if they don't understand the philosophy of yoga.

"One little girl, after a session, said to me, `I feel so beautiful,'" the instructor recalled. "I think she just didn't know how to put into words that she was relaxed."

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