Yoga helps children focus, relieve stress and concentrate at school

08/16/2013 12:00 AM

08/16/2013 9:48 AM

It may be a rare sight to see an American child practicing yoga.

But starting kids off early with yoga helps them develop skills to manage stress, relax, and improve concentration and self-esteem, a local instructor says.

Besides, children already have an advantage over adults taking up yoga: flexibility.

"Physically, children are already flexible so it helps them to maintain that flexibility that they already have; it helps them get stronger and have healthier bodies," said Linda Masuhara, an instructor at the Yoga Seed Collective in midtown Sacramento.

Masuhara advocates yoga for children with attention deficit issues or who are on the autism spectrum. "It helps to develop a longer attention span," she said.

Instructors teach kids breathing exercises that have a calming effect.

Masuhara is one of three instructors leading a yoga kids' camp at the Yoga Seed studio this week.

The Yoga Seed is a nonprofit organization. Anyone can walk in without any funds and take a class.

For 16 years, Masuhara was a teacher in Orange County, and she began teaching kindergarten students in 1998.

In 2006 she attended a conference in the Bay Area, and a session on yoga for stressed-out teachers and kindergartners prompted her to try it out on her students.

They loved it immediately, Masuhara said.

To make it fun, she has her students pretend they're trees blowing in the wind, or they squat like frogs or flap their arms like a butterfly.

She said her yoga instruction doesn't include religious training. "People think yoga is connected to Hinduism and they think that (all) people who do yoga practice the religion of Hinduism. That's not true," Masuhara said.

A key component to yoga is the breathing, Masuhara said. She teaches her students to take deep breaths as a pause button before reacting to something. It is a problem-solving tool for children, helping them think clearly in a stressful situation.

One of her students approached her and described how he used what he learned in yoga to avoid a fight with his sister.

"His little sister was mad at him. She was so mad that she took her shoes off and was throwing her shoes at him," Masuhara said. "He went over to her, he put his hands on her belly and he told her that she needed to take deep breaths so that she could get oxygen to her brain so she could make better choices. This is a kindergartner telling his little sister this. He said it worked."

Gus Russell, 11, started the camp on Monday, but he's been doing yoga for about three years. "It was something fun to do in the morning before school," he said. "It makes me feel like I don't have any requirements. No one is like, 'You have to do this! You have to do that!' "

Amina Noorani, 8, said the yoga is "really fun and exciting." It makes her "really relaxed" afterward, she said.

In 2011, Kristie Koenig, an associate professor at New York University in the Department of Occupational Therapy, conducted research observing behavior improvement in autistic children after they practice yoga.

She observed children ages 7 to 12 at the largest school with kids with autism in the country, she said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.

She said the program is now being used in more than 100 classrooms in New York City.

"There are key elements of yoga for kids who are on the spectrum or have issues with regulation," Koenig said. "And the kids who have issues with regulation tend to be the kids with autism."

If yoga were delivered in the classroom as part of the curriculum, it would really help start their day in a more focused state, Koenig said.

The kids, she said, were less aggressive and hyperactive, more focused and displayed less inappropriate behavior. She said yoga made them "feel relaxed, happy and calmer."

Call The Bee's Kristopher Rivera, (916) 321-1101 Follow him on Twitter @kgrivera.

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