Get Involved: How Yoga Is Helping Students at Low-Income Schools

May 2012

The walls are covered in colorful posters bursting with words like "Sportmanship," "Dance," and "Work Hard." It's a typical elementary school gym—except that I'm here to watch a fifth-grade yoga class. 

As a kid, my PE time consisted of basketball, soccer, and climbing ropes. But I didn't go to a school like Colfax Elementary, where 97 percent of the students receive a free or reduced lunch. The recession, it seems, doesn't just affect working adults or out-of-college twentysomethings. Stress trickles down and can have serious effects on children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (PDF), "intensive and prolonged stress...can disrupt early brain development...and can lead to health problems later in life including alcoholism, depression, eating disorders, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases."

Thanks to a grant funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and provided by the Wellness Initiative, Colfax Elementary, along with 34 other schools, has found an unexpected source to combat these effects: yoga. Every kid (starting in kindergarten) takes a yoga class once a week. Which is why on a recent Tuesday morning I found myself sitting in on physical education teacher Tom Barela's class of 16 fifth-graders. "We always want students to experience success," Barela says. "But they may not be good at sports. This discipline helps them look within, have more confidence, and more tools to focus."

Yoga instructor Allyson Levine (with the Wellness Initiative) led the group through sun salutations, downward dogs, and "games" that teach the kids about focus and being calm. "Yoga gives them a lot more self-awareness and tools for handling stress—from tests, fights, home life," Levine says. "It inspires a lot more cooperation than normal PE because they're not competing."

And it's working. Desire, 10, told me that besides helping her stretch and making her more flexible, yoga helps her be more focused throughout the day. Can a fifth-grade teacher ask for anything else?

Get Involved: Contact the Wellness Initiative to learn more about what you can do to help.