Yoga for youth: Ancient practice finds new fans in urban teens

Diamond Barnett-Lewis knows exactly what to do when her yoga teacher calls
out, “Adho Mukha Svanasana.”

It’s the origins of the eight-syllable Sanskrit phrase that gives her pause.

“What language is that?” Barnett-Lewis, 13, asked during a teen yoga class
in Riverwest, Wis., this month. “Where’s it from?”

Many youths are engaged in the usual pastimes: chatting on front porches,
watching TV and playing video games. But Barnett-Lewis and a small group of
teens are learning how to better control their bodies and relax when their
emotions run high. Sometimes they get a few language and geography lessons,

The class is part of a growing effort to demystify yoga – a practice with
roots in India that combines movement and meditation – and make it
accessible to young people.

In Milwaukee, the key has been offering scholarships and partnering with
local organizations that more typically work with urban teens, said Peggy
Hong, who teaches Barnett-Lewis and seven other youths at Riverwest
Yogashala. The studio became a nonprofit yoga center a year ago and started
raising funds to subsidize classes for low-income students. A partnership
with the Human Development Center, a social services and youth development
agency, has helped broaden the circle of teen participants.

“It’s a racially mixed class. It’s an economically mixed class,” Hong
said, and added that about half of the students attend on full or partial

Yoga offers students of any age a way to manage stress and increase

Teens and adults alike can learn alternatives to what Jyoti Bratz, an
instructor at the Yoga Society on Milwaukee’s east side, calls the
“hypertensive breathing” characteristic of people with high blood pressure.
The activity can teach teenagers how their thoughts about themselves and
their environment influence how they feel, Bratz said.

“The child will come to the enlightened idea that, ‘Oh, I’m not this body,’
” she said.

In June, the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee launched its first youth-only
yoga class as part of a broader effort to create more child- and
family-centered programs. The class is for kids ages 8 and up and meets
weekly at the West Suburban branch. The idea is to see how participants
respond to the offering and possibly expand it to the other branches.

“We’re hoping that it’s something that catches on,” said Tim Eilbes, a YMCA

Eilbes said the Y’s programming staff has been interested in using yoga to
help young people develop healthy habits and feel confident about their

Yvette Mitchell wanted to instill a sense of self-assurance in her
13-year-old son, Ramsey Braden, so she signed him up for Hong’s teen class.
During his last growth spurt, Ramsey fell a lot, Mitchell said. Yoga seemed
a good way to help him grow into his 5-foot-6-inch frame and size 12 shoes

The physical stability is coming slowly, as are some behavioral changes,
said Mitchell, who has studied yoga for several years. The difference is
most obvious right after Ramsey comes home from a class.

“He’s actually more subdued,” she said. “He’s not doing that spinning thing
that he does when he’s playing video games.”

Weaving asanas, or poses, into his classroom during the school year has
helped some fifth-graders at Fratney Elementary School slow down and focus,
said Bob Peterson, a teacher who has been studying yoga for about six years.

Peterson leads students in 45 minutes of yoga once a week and works a few
stretches into the day during transition times.

He started several years ago, at a time when Fratney offered no gym classes.
The school had a part-time physical education teacher this past academic
year, but that position won’t exist in the fall, Peterson said.

“They need venues other than sitting all the time,” said Peterson of his
students. “I think academic achievement would skyrocket if we actually
taught the whole body.”

Getting kids to feel comfortable being barefoot is often a struggle,
Peterson said. So is getting some students past preconceived notions about
the activity.

“When I mention yoga, they cross their legs, put their fingers in a circle
and go, ‘Ommm,’ ” he said. “They have a certain stereotype that yoga means

Peterson has told parents that their children are free to opt out, and some
have asked that their kids be excused based on concerns that the practice
conflicts with their religious beliefs.

Yoga’s ability to help young people strengthen and tone their bodies has
prompted Hong, the Riverwest instructor, to lead classes for Shorewood High
School’s cross country and track teams and the Shorewood/Messmer football

Yoga has given her a way to show teenage boys the importance of breaking up
their weightlifting routines with stretches. It’s given her a way to
communicate with youths about the importance of self-respect.

“Teenagers can be very unfriendly toward their bodies,” Hong said. “They
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