Beyond 'Namaste': The benefits of yoga in schools

Story highlights

  • Some parents have protested schools' yoga programs
  • Yoga can have benefits for any child, regardless of faith, instructor says

Dana Santas is the creator of Radius Yoga Conditioning, a yoga style designed to help people move, breathe and feel better. She's the yoga trainer for the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning and dozens of pros in the National Football League, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and Professional Golfers' Association.

(CNN)It's increasingly common for office workers to integrate yoga techniques into their workday as a means of countering prolonged sitting and of refreshing their ability to concentrate. But religious concerns have caused ongoing controversy about schoolchildren, who also spend many hours sitting each day, leveraging the benefits of yoga.

Most recently, the issue was raised by parents in Georgia whose children attend an elementary school that implemented yoga in the classroom. Although yoga is not a religion in and of itself, it is a philosophy, rooted in Hinduism, composed of a system of various practices designed to heighten spirituality.
However, what the concerned parents probably don't realize is that the popular Americanized version of yoga being taught in schools is a secular form of mind-body exercise focused on mental and physical benefits, not spirituality.
    In 2013, a judge in Encinitas, California, ruled against a suit initiated by parents seeking to end a yoga program at their children's school, stating that the school was not teaching religion through its yoga classes.
    I agree with the judge. When children do yoga, they aren't practicing religion; they are training life-enhancing abilities that can positively impact every child, regardless of faith. According to a 2012 study published in The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, middle-school students taking yoga reported positive mood and attitude changes, increased energy and improved ability to relax, as well as improved posture.
    As a mother who has done yoga with all three of my children, the youngest of whom is on the autism spectrum, I can attest to the myriad benefits, ranging from physical advantages like improved sport performance and posture to profoundly valuable mental skills like self-control and the ability to manage stress.
    Below, I've outlined my top three reasons why and ways how yoga should be taught in schools. Although the exercises I've shared are most appropriate for preschool through preteen, yoga-based practices for better breathing, movement and mindfulness can and should be adapted for any age group.

    Teaching breathing as fundamental to well-being

    Everyone agrees that breathing is fundamental to life. No breathing, no living. However, how to breathe to the best of our ability is rarely, if ever, taught to any of us, despite the fact that, through exposure to illness or stress, most of us develop less-than-optimal breathing patterns that can adversely affect our overall well-being. How we breathe not only affects our movement and posture, it is crucial to our ability to manage stress.
    When I work with pro athletes on breathing and they quickly realize the significant benefits, their first response is usually to ask, "Why didn't anyone teach me this sooner?!" I understand their frustration. That's why I've developed the following exercises to teach children the basics of breathing biomechanics and how to leverage their breathing during times of stress.
    "Rib riding" diaphragmatic breathing: Teaches and reinforces proper breathing biomechanics
    Have kids sit comfortably on the floor or in chairs and place their hands on their lower ribs. Ask them to breathe in and out through their noses while their hands "ride" the corresponding movement of their ribs. Explain that inhalations should fill their lungs, like balloons under their ribs, making their hands expand out with their ribcage. When they exhale, the balloons deflate, and their hands should ride their ribs back in and down. Repeat in sets of five breaths three times.
    Peace palm exhaling: Reduces stress; helps kids manage sensory and/or emotionally overwhelming experiences<