Emma Annunziata gets excited to go to school on yoga days. On a Tuesday morning, she can be seen running into the yoga room at Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts as her mom Tara tries to keep up.
As part of the early morning yoga club, Emma is one of up to 15 children who join school counselor Colleen Kowal twice a week before school.
Tara Annunziata said she enrolled Emma in the club to “relax her and to get ready for a big day at school.”
For Emma, it’s a chance to exert some energy before she hits the books in the classroom.
“Yoga can help kids improve focus and memory,” Kowal says. “The idea is that if they can take what they’re learning in the yoga class and apply those skills in the classroom and in their lives, that’s the end goal.”
Kowal does the club class twice a week, then works with small groups and classrooms regularly. The club and classes teaches students how to cope with the daily stresses they encounter at school and at home.
“It is a different approach than what we experience in adult classes,” Kowal said. “I have a lesson plan template that I use for almost every class... Like every other lesson you have in the classroom.”
For example, in March, the theme of all of Kowal’s classes was coping with stress.
“Almost all kids are dealing with stress,” Kowal said. “If you think about the adults, we’re stressed…We don’t know that our kids are picking up on it, but they do. It’s good for them to be able to practice skills now for identifying when they’re stressed, and being able to express that, and being taught skills to be able to cope with those feelings.”
Unlike an adult class, a children’s yoga class is playful. When the children do a pose such as downward-facing dog, they howl. During the mini cobra pose, they hiss. Kowal changes the routine to match classroom lessons, too. When they do a triangle pose, the children count the triangles they see.
Kowal decided to start the classes after she experienced some help from yoga in her personal life. Kowal took a children’s yoga certification course and brought it into her counseling efforts at the school.
“It’s a growing, evolving program,” she says. The principal provided a room for the classes and some basic equipment including mats, blocks and sachets. “The principal has been really supportive.”
While there are some controversies surrounding the practice of yoga in schools — including a California lawsuit claiming a school was bringing religious practices into the classroom with yoga — Kowal says the practice benefits the children.
“As an educator for 30 years, I’m very sensitive to the beliefs of others,” Kowal says. “Character development and respect and tolerance for one another, I don’t see any of those qualities as specific to any religion.”
Kowal says she’s careful not to use the Sanskrit terms in the class and to really focus on the lessons and objectives she plans for each class.
Jaime Patillo, a pediatric occupational therapist in the Lowcountry and yoga instructor at Ganesha’s Place in Savannah, uses similar methods to teach yoga to her students and clients.
“I’ve been a pediatric occupational therapist almost my entire career, and when I started doing yoga, I just started incorporating it into my therapy with the kids,” Patillo said.
Patillo teaches classes in six-week sessions in Savannah with themes such as Star Wars or animals. The children would practice the pose, play with the pose and make a craft to bring home that reminded them of the pose. For example, when the children learn the frog pose, they hop while in the position and make ribbit sounds. At the end of the class, the students made frogs to bring home.
All children, including those with special needs, can benefit from the lessons that can be taught through yoga, Patillo says.
“In all the ways adults benefit, kids benefit as well. So you have your physical benefits like strength, coordination and flexibility,” she said. “Then you have the other benefits like breathing. Teaching a kid to use their breath to either energize or to calm, to help deal with stress. Our kids are stressed. School is stressful. Tests and making friends and fitting in, all those things are stressful.”
Patillo says she tries to keep the classes active and exciting for her students, but she also makes sure to teach stillness.
“We all need to be still at times. You have to slow down in order for renewal, to re-energize to let our emotions settle, to deal with stress, to find that happy place inside,” she says. M