Yoga for youth: The ancient Indian practice can inspire healthier lifestyles for kids, teens

"I think that’s important that every teen just find something that helps them get through the day and find center of self." – Danielle Wong, freshman at the University of St. Thomas.

At Learning Tree Yoga in Minneapolis, a group of preschoolers bounces around in a classroom, singing and jabbering.

Owner Jessie Forston prepares to perform what some people believe as magic—transforming agitated kids to focused, calm kids.

Her secret is yoga—an ancient Indian discipline, including breathing control, simple meditation and specific body poses, practiced for health and relaxation.

Yoga has grown rapidly in popularity in recent years, including with young people. One recent study by the National Institutes of Health shows about 400,000 more U.S. children (ages 4 to 17) were practicing yoga in 2012 than they were five years earlier.

Many young people have seen the benefits that follow, such as increased flexibility and an improved metabolism—just to name a couple.

“We’ve seen the stress level of both adults and kids and teens growing with each year,” Forston said, “and they’re really finding kind of a release from that in being able to do things like yoga.”

Forston was a teacher at an Edina elementary school several years ago when she noticed the students in her class were having a tough time staying focused. She decided to integrate yoga into the classroom and saw her students react by becoming more present, she said. Inspired, Forston received her YogaKids certification, left her career as a teacher and opened up Learning Tree Yoga in 2008.

“A lot of people were thinking it was just a fad, thinking it would pass and never really be a career path,” Forston said, “but then they started teaching kids yoga all over the media.”

Studies show yoga has numerous benefits. Eighty-six percent of yoga practitioners report having “a strong sense of mental clarity,” 73 percent report being physically strong and 79 percent give back to their communities—all significantly higher rates than those who don’t practice yoga, according to a 2016 study by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance.

Julia Larson, 17, said she felt energized and centered the first time she tried yoga at a summer camp when she was 14. Larson, a rising senior at Minneapolis Washburn High School, still continues to practice yoga.

“This last spring, I was under a lot of stress, not really having a healthy way of channeling my pent-up energy, so I decided I’m going to do more yoga each morning,” she said.

Larson sees herself implementing more yoga into her routine, especially when the fall semester rolls around. She said yoga should be taught to students in schools as a way for them to get in shape during the school day and find center of self.

“And if you put it down as part of curriculum, then they have no option,” she said.

Danielle Wong, a 17-year-old incoming freshman at the University of St. Thomas, first started yoga a couple years ago as an actress at Stages Theatre Company. Before her performances, Wong’s stage manager would make her and her peers do yoga.

“We would do moves, like ‘downward dogs,’ and it was just a kind of way to ease our nerves,” Wong said. “Take deep breaths, have that focus time before we actually went on stage.”

Wong saw the anxiety in the room diminished and improvements in their performances, she said.

“I think that’s important that every teen just find something that helps them get through the day and find center of self,” Wong said.

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