A lifelong tool: Local children reap benefits of learning yoga

  • Minka Niedzwiedz, 3, does the downward dog pose at a yoga class for preschoolers at the Carnegie Library in Turners Falls. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Jackie Howard of Great Falls Yoga, on the brown mat, leads a yoga class for preschoolers at the Carnegie Library in Turners Falls. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Jackie Howard of Great Falls Yoga, on the brown mat, leads a yoga class for preschoolers at the Carnegie Library in Turners Falls. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Minka Niedzwiedz, 3, of Erving mimics instructor Jackie Howard at a yoga class for preschoolers at the Carnegie Library in Turners Falls. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Jackie Howard of Great Falls Yoga, left, leads a yoga for preschoolers class at the Carnegie Library in Turners Falls. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Teacher’s assistant Sue Fuller uses heart-shaped rocks during a yoga session with preschoolers at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield. Students will hold the rocks or sit on the floor with the rock in front of them, and say something they’re grateful for or that makes them happy. Staff photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Second-graders at Colrain Central School do a yoga routine between lessons. Staff photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Students at Sanderson Academy in Ashfield practice their yoga poses during their “mindful movements” session with Sue Fuller. Staff photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Sue Fuller starts a yoga session for her preschool class at Ashfield’s Sanderson Academy with the ringing of a singing bowl and breathing exercises. Staff photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Luann Lord’s second grade class at Colrain Central School does a five-minute yoga routine before transitioning to the next lesson. Staff photo/Melina Bourdeau

  • Sue Fuller reads a book to her pre-school class as the students do child’s pose during their yoga routine. Staff photo/Melina Bourdeau—

Staff Writer
Published: 4/19/2019 7:02:53 PM

A small singing bowl let out a ringing tuning-fork like echo for the six preschool students sitting on the rug at Sanderson Academy. They took a collective breath as the teacher’s aid, Sue Fuller, opened a book and began reading to them.

She read the word, “mountain,” and the students stood up with their hands above their heads. They held the pose for five seconds before sitting back down.

The students have 15 minutes of yoga, or “mindful movements” as Fuller calls them, every day at school. Across Franklin County at schools and studios, yoga is incorporated into children’s lives, with various social, mental and health benefits.

Out of the 23 elementary schools surveyed in Franklin County, six offer some form of yoga as part of their regular curriculum: Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, Colrain Central School, Shutesbury Elementary School, Warwick Community School, Bernardston Elementary School and Pearl Rhodes Elementary School in Leyden.

Fostering body awareness and creativity

At Sanderson Academy, it’s the third year that Fuller has integrated a daily yoga routine into her preschoolers’ lives. She also teaches the whole school on a weekly basis. The sessions include breath work, mindful thinking, and being aware of one’s body and being present.

“It gives them the skills to calm down and become aware of their bodies before rest or nap time,” said Fuller, who studied at ChildLight Yoga in New Hampshire. “When they come back from lunch, they need to come in and sit quietly on a mat, and this helps them to do that.”

Likewise, Shutesbury Elementary School preschool teacher Grace Griecci has taught yoga to students in preschool through sixth grade for three years. Her 30-minute sessions focus on strengthening their muscles and learning to be more mindful in their movements.

“You’re getting kids to pay attention to all their body parts and how to move them in a way that’s integrated,” Griecci said. “We also talk a lot about breathing and how to use our breath to calm.”

Depending on the day, Fuller will read a book that incorporates poses like mountain pose, child’s pose and eagle pose. Fuller also uses heart-shaped rocks she finds while hiking as part of lessons. Students will hold the rocks or sit on the floor with the rock in front of them, and say something they’re grateful for or that makes them happy.

Depending on the age of the student, Fuller will modify the routines. The older children can also do longer sessions, up to 30 minutes.

“For the older grades like fourth or fifth grade, they will hold the pose for longer and I’ll tell them about which muscles they’ll be stretching,” Fuller said. “With the younger students like preschool or kindergarten, it’s more about being aware of their body and staying in one area.”

Like Fuller, Griecci makes modifications based on the age of the students. The yoga is more playful for younger children, who often imitate animals. Meanwhile, the older children “do partner poses a lot. It’s a great way for kids to be respectful of each other.”

Fuller said she’ll have the students develop new poses, and teach the class how to do them.

“One student came up with a castle pose, and he showed us how to do it,” she said. “We’ll get into (the poses) and hold them for two breaths.”

Jackie Howard, who recently taught a three-part yoga series at Montague’s Carnegie Library for children ages 3 to 5 and their caregivers, also lets the children use their imaginations to brainstorm different poses.

During one session, the group pretended to go to the beach. Children used a paper cutout of the sun to stretch, inhaling as the sun went up and down again. Different poses were called “surfing,” “putting on sunscreen” and using their toes to “put seashells in their buckets.”

Teaching mindfulness

At Colrain Central School, second-grade teacher Luann Lord has an abridged version of a yoga routine that takes about five minutes. Like Fuller, Lord has expanded the routine outside of her classroom to the whole school at a monthly assembly.

Lord began to incorporate the routine three or four years ago, after doing yoga herself.

“We do it after we’ve been working for a while and we’re about to move to something else,” she said of her routine.

Second-grader Clinton Jacques, one of Lord’s students, said he likes doing yoga on days when they have a lot of work.

“It’s helpful on days when it can be really crazy,” Clinton said. “It helps us to calm down. I like the monkey pose the most. I like to do yoga because I have three siblings and sometimes when I get mad at them, I do yoga.”

Fellow second-grader Kayden Barry said she likes to do the plane pose the most because she gets to stand on one leg and lean forward with her arms out.

“I like to balance on the plane pose,” Kayden said. “I like yoga because it’s helpful when I get hyped up. It calms me down. Then I can get started with school work.”

Fuller said that since Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing has started for elementary school students, she helped to create breath work posters and chair yoga in between testing.

“The feedback has been phenomenal,” she said. “It helps the class come together.”

One of the challenges of teaching children yoga, Griecci said, is their eagerness to move. Howard added that their inability to pay attention can also make teaching difficult.

“The biggest difference is adults stay on their mats,” she said. “Some kids are more resistant to it, and we have to find a way to get into a pose where they feel comfortable and confident.”

The Shutesbury Elementary School classes go through 11 sequences. A class will start off with quiet poses and build on them, ending with restorative poses. Griecci then instructs her students to lie still at the end of every class for two or three minutes, which she said helps with social-emotional development.

“Giving them some practice with (staying still) is really valuable,” Griecci said. “They can go there when they’re feeling excited or angry. It’s just a place to be very calm and quiet.”

Depending on the age group, she uses different analogies or metaphors to explain the period of stillness, like letting a cloud pass by in clear blue skies.

“It’s similar to shaking up a snow globe and just letting it settle,” Griecci said. “We’re really teaching mindfulness.”

A sense of accomplishment

Incorporating yoga into the students’ routine, on a daily or weekly basis, is important to Fuller and her fellow instructors.

“I think it should be in more schools,” Fuller said. “It’s a tool to have their toolbox for the rest of their lives. Even if they don’t get all of the lessons out of it, little pieces of it are useful. A student might be standing in line waiting with a little anxiety, and they can use breath work to help themselves calm down.”

Griecci said she’s seen many benefits of doing yoga with the students that can be seen outside of school, too.

“Kids feel very proud of themselves when they’re able to get into a pose with less effort and more ease,” Griecci said. “I’ve gotten emails from parents saying their kids have done yoga with them at home. It addresses many different areas — physical, emotional, psychological. You can work with all of those elements in a way through yoga.”

“It does a lot for them,” Lord agreed, saying she’s observed the students doing yoga independently. “They learn to accomplish something and feel good about it. It helps them calm down, and stretching on its own has a lot of health benefits.”

Howard, who also teaches yoga at Khalsa Childcare in Leverett and at Great Falls Yoga in Turners Falls, said she likes to ensure yoga is a positive experience for her pupils.

“It’s a fun playscape where there’s no right or wrong way to do things,” Howard said. “Yoga is about focusing, spatial awareness and movement. It’s not easy for kids to not move for one minute and pay attention to their breath.”

Those interested in trying yoga for children outside of a school setting can participate in a program taught by Sara Corbyn for children ages 2 to 5 and their caregivers. Baby siblings are welcome.

The program will be held on four Mondays from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. — April 29, May 6, May 13 and May 20. All four classes is $45, three classes is $35 and a single class is $15.

Staff reporter Melina Bourdeau started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. Her beat includes Montague, Erving and Gill. She can be reached at: mbourdeau@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263.




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