There are many studies out there touting the benefits of yoga, from increasing flexibility and strength, to helping with more debilitating conditions like chronic headaches and pain. More and more children are practicing yoga, and researchers are just beginning to understand how kids can benefit from the ancient discipline.
West Hartford's Webster Hill Elementary School is one of a growing number of schools that offers a weekly yoga class for students, parents and teachers before school.
Sunlight crept into the gym on a chilly winter morning. It was 8:05 am, and about 20 children and a few parents were practicing their sitting poses.
The thing I noticed right away is the quiet: no chatter; no laughter; no fidgeting; just the sound of soothing new age music, and the voice of gym teacher and yoga instructor Eileen Sheverdian.
Margo Cray is a regular at Wednesday morning yoga along with her granddaughter. "I love to spend time with my granddaughter," she said. "What a wonderful way to start the day. She loves the yoga class, and is disappointed the few weeks that I can't do it. She is the typical overly-responsible first child, so I do see her hustling off to class. But I do think it puts her in a different perspective."
Sheverdian, who started the morning yoga program in 2009, is always amazed at how the children respond to the ancient practice. "I notice those students for whom being still is a challenge," she said. "All of a sudden, they get it. It's not such a challenge. I see them concentrated for 30 minutes. That's hard. We don't talk in yoga very much -- they follow me, they go slow. Slow is hard for kids to do."
Sheverdian said her goal is to give children the full yoga experience in a condensed half hour. "I try to have a little something new each time," she said. "[and develop] a lot of familiarity, so they get used to the poses. That's confidence building. I have lots of kids who don't stretch very much, as adults don't do either. So to take a little more time in the day to stretch those muscles out, to lubricate the body a little bit, that's hugely beneficial."
Those benefits are starting to be quantified by a few researchers. One of them is Keri Hainsworth, Ph.D., an associate professor of anesthesiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She has conducted studies on the effects of yoga on children who suffer from chronic headaches, and children who are obese, specifically if a regimen of yoga could improve their strength and flexibility.
"When it comes to obesity," Hainsworth said, "we're interested in -- for those kids who have obesity but also pain -- how much of that is affecting their ability to function physically, and emotionally, and socially, and so on."
The results in all of four of Hainsworth's studies are encouraging. Yoga helped manage chronic headaches, and improved the flexibility and strength of obese children. The big take-away for Hainsworth was how the children who participated in these studies felt after practicing yoga for just a few weeks.
"I think the kids feel better about themselves," Hainsworth said. "I think they feel happier. I think they feel physically better, which I think in turn releases emotions, and what we've seen across all of our studies is a significant drop in anxiety."
Back in the gym at Webster Hill, the children lay flat on their yoga mats, eyes closed, relaxing. In just a few minutes the bell would ring, and they would join the noisy chaos out in the hallway. But there is growing evidence that the half-hour they spend quietly practicing yoga may set them on a path to a happier, more productive day at school.