Yoga starts with a single, mindful breath that leads to another, and another …
An art and science of the mind, body and spirit practiced around the world for thousands of years, yoga today has many young devotees in all parts of the Kansas City metro. In classrooms, libraries, gyms and yoga studios, young people are experiencing the life-changing benefits of this ancient practice.
These benefits are real and tangible, said Dr. Tracy Daniel, a clinical child psychologist and trained yoga professional. Founder of Mindful Child Wellness in Prairie Village, Daniel has been using yoga and mindfulness in her psychological work with children, ages 5 to 17, for years. She has seen its transformative effects.
“Everyone want to know the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ about yoga’s benefits for youth,” Daniel said. “So, we teach these.”
Yoga leads to stress reduction and builds coping strategies through deep diaphragmatic breathing, she said. It also develops resiliency, social skills, compassion and adaptability — and creates happiness.
“Young people go from thinking ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’t yet,’ ” she said.
Students’ body and personal awareness also increases, which helps them regulate themselves and choose their behaviors. “Students are developing all of these skills,” Daniel said. “But they are having so much fun, they don’t even realize it.”
Tamara Quinlan is one of these happy Kansas City yoga students Daniel describes. In April, Tamara, 15, started attending yoga classes at Om Prana Yoga in Parkville. “I love it here,” said Tamara, whose 86-year-old grandfather has now joined her in weekly yoga class. “He loves it really well, too!”
“Yoga has calmed me,” she said. “I can focus on my school work now and I get better grades. Everything doesn’t revolve around stress. I can take my mind off of it, breathe, and be in the moment.”
Tamara is one of many area young people who, with their instructors, have discovered yoga’s transformative journey through practice of the breath, poses and mindfulness.
Yoga therapist Wendy Landry works with high school students at her studio, Om Prana Yoga. In this peaceful setting, she teaches students how to address anxiety and stress brought on by overextended schedules and high-stakes tests.
The students primarily participate in restorative classes where they use breathing to calm and restore their bodies and minds.
“A lot of my students are active in sports and on the go, so their nervous systems are ramped up,” Landry said. “The restorative classes are very helpful for them.”
Though she has seen an increase in teen stress, Landry also has observed a trend in parents seeking out alternative care for their children to help them with their struggles and with developing coping mechanisms.
“Yoga provides teens with useful skills they can take through life to navigate their challenges and feel better,” she said. “Yoga and the breath can go anywhere.”
Blue Valley North teacher Kat Buchanan started practicing yoga 10 years ago.
“I’m not flexible and was scared to death of the yoga mat and poses,” she said. “What I discovered is that yoga is for everyone, and I’ve been practicing every day since.”
In 2013, Buchanan attended a presentation about the benefits of yoga in the classroom and was inspired to bring these to her students. Like Landry, Buchanan has seen the pressure students face.
“Pressure on today’s high school students is immense and I was watching my students crumble under that stress,” Buchanan said. “I had students crying because they got a B on a test. Others could not remember the last time they had slept more than four consecutive hours.”
For the past four years, Buchanan has led her students in daily yoga breaks during which they work on poses, meditation and yoga principles. Not only has Buchanan seen the benefits of yoga for her students, other teachers and school counselors have, too. Those who work with students after they’ve participated in yoga see a decrease in negative classroom behaviors and also notice students have lower stress levels when they’re completing college applications or taking tests.
“In four years, I have not had one student refuse to participate,” Buchanan says. “Everyone says they want this break. They say it’s calming and feels good.”
Katya Mason’s students in Parkville are discovering this same joy in yoga practice — but at a very young age. Mason teaches 3- to 5-year-olds at Gardens of Delight yoga studio. For this age group, yoga includes free play and games, and the poses are framed in terms they can easily understand.
“At this age, the children like to be silly and use their energy with freedom,” Mason said. “But they are learning how to understand their breath, voice and the mind-body connection — and how to put that all together.”
They also gain confidence, are more cooperative and communicate more clearly, she said.
Northland elementary teacher Jamie Davis began practicing yoga several years ago and completed Mindful Child Wellness training with Daniel, who offers the training to teachers, counselors, occupational therapists and others.
Yoga and the mindfulness practices have been transforming, Davis said. “When I focus on mindfulness, I can work through stress. It brings me back to balance, the present moment and myself.”
After experiencing yoga’s transformation in her own life, Davis found a way to bring this gift to others. Earlier this year, she began leading yoga classes for young people living with their mothers at a shelter for abused women.
Davis leads her students in yoga and mindfulness practices to bring some peace and focus to their lives.
“They love coming to yoga. They say they feel better, have more compassion for others, and are able to exercise more self-control,” Davis said. “They also have fun, and these children certainly need to have some joy and happiness right now.”
Like Davis, Sawyer Orwig, 7, is particularly drawn to the mindfulness aspects of his yoga practice.
Sawyer has a mild sensory processing disorder and experiences social anxiety. During first grade last year, his problems escalated at school. In a search to find help for Sawyer’s challenges, his mother, Claire Orwig, studied the benefits of yoga and learned about Daniel’s studio.
“I felt yoga was a gentler, healthier approach than jumping to put him on medication,” Orwig said.
Over the past year, Sawyer has attended Daniel’s yoga classes. During class, Sawyer practices mindfulness exercises, including mindful eating and breathing.
“This practice helps him stay in the moment,” his mother said. “I have seen Sawyer become more resilient since he started yoga. If something sets him off, it’s much easier and quicker for him to calm himself down, and he’s more relaxed and open in his communication.”
Sawyer also loves to share mindfulness practices with his family. After dinner, he occasionally guides them in mindfully eating their dessert.
“Yoga teachers have a gift to share with young people,” Landry said. “We have an opportunity to open the door and let them flourish. Yoga gives them so many possibilities to walk through their adulthood without fear, to walk through life confident.”