UVA student introduces yoga to local PE classes

MIND+BODY

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Fifth graders at Tandem Friends School learn basic poses in preparation for next year, when they’ll have regular yoga practices incorporated into PE classes.  Staff photo Fifth graders at Tandem Friends School learn basic poses in preparation for next year, when they’ll have regular yoga practices incorporated into PE classes. Staff photo

At 9am on Monday, when most of us were grumbling about returning to the office, a small group of fifth graders was spreading yoga mats out on a gym floor, taking deep breaths, and preparing for a short yoga session. UVA third year, athlete, and practicing yogi Bennett Reck led the kids through a 15-minute series of poses, and watched in amazement when half the group, eyes closed and deeply focused, popped into flawless crow positions.

The fifth grade class at Tandem Friends School is taking part in Reck’s capstone project, an initiative to incorporate yoga routines into local schools’ PE curriculums. Starting next fall, in addition to chasing whiffle balls across the field, sixth graders at Tandem will spend a portion of their gym classes barefoot, quieting their minds, and stretching their bodies in ways that soccer and lacrosse don’t allow.

“It was a lot harder than I expected,” said 11-year-old Nate Winter, who left the first session with Reck feeling relaxed but sore. “You’re stretching all these muscles that you didn’t even know existed.”

Winter said he generally enjoys PE, and even joined the basketball team this year, but as an aspiring engineer, he’d rather “tinker with things” than play organized team sports. Tandem Athletic Director Jackie Rose said the more athletic kids tend to “sometimes dominate the classes,” and the inclusion of yoga during class time might level the playing field for the non-athletes.

“For kids who are still fit but maybe not as interested in team sports, it may give them the chance to show their skills and enjoy PE class in a different way,” Rose said.

Reck will lead the first few classes in the fall to get the project off the ground, and as he gradually removes himself, he’ll work with Rose and PE teacher Al Sadtler to develop a handful of regular, adaptable routines for them to cycle through without him. They also plan to compile a database of poses, with notes on difficulty and popularity among students.

“I want to give them a toolbox that they can draw from at any age,” Reck said. “I’m hoping this will be a jumping off point for other schools, and they’ll see that you don’t need a yoga instructor for it.”

Tandem administrators chose to introduce the program to sixth graders because of their adaptability and eagerness to try new things, but for the other half of his project across town at St. Anne’s Belfield School, Reck will take a different approach. With the help of Bend Yoga owner Kelly Cox, he’s designing curriculum for the school’s kindergarteners. It’s a whole different ballgame from teaching middle schoolers, and they’ll start with exercises like blowing feathers across the room to practice deep breathing.

“We start yoga with very young children,” Cox said. “As soon as they can move and take in what others are doing, they are ready for yoga.”

Gathering hard, quantitative data will be difficult, Reck said, but he plans to follow up with teachers and coaches immediately after their yoga practice to gather information about students’ energy levels, ability to focus, and any improvements in organized sports.

“I’m not trying to turn every kid into a yogi,” Reck said. “That’s not my goal. I just want to give them the tools.”

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