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Rookie mom

Yoga helps kids stretch toward better health

Published May 1, 2005

Eight-year-old Reisa Newmark's favorite is the tippy toes pose. Nine-year-old Jenny Nesselroad's is the crow. Apiphany Vance, also 9, quickly lifts her body up into a backbend to show her favorite yoga pose, the wheel.

"If you do that every single day for the rest of your life, when you're 90 you'll still be able to do backbends. Think how good that is for your chest and your lungs," says Haris Lender, who teaches the kids' yoga class at Sunken Gardens.

Each week she leads students, ages 8 to 12, in yoga indoors and out in the garden. The class walks the trail, stopping often to strike a yoga pose for what they see. There's the tree pose, the butterfly pose, the bridge, the fish and the flower.

"Oh I forgot the flower pose," said Jenny, who quickly squats on the floor and lifts her feet off the ground and hangs her legs over her arms. "I want to change my favorite pose to the flower."

Across town, the excitement is the same though the voices and the bodies are smaller. A class of 3-year-olds at Temple Beth-El preschool sits in a circle on their mats happily stretching into elephants and cobras. Their teacher, Michelle Kleinmetz, tells the group they are on a jungle safari.

"Let's be lions. Get up on your knees and put your paws in the air. Take a big breath with your nose," she says.

Then all the kids count down together. "Three, two, one. Roooaaaaarrrrr," they yell as they lean forward on their outstretched arms.

"Now lie on your back and pull your legs in against your chest. If you were lying in your chrysalis what would you be?" Kleinmetz asks.

"A butterfly," the kids call out.

And soon they are lifting their arms and legs into the air to stretch their "wings" as far as they can. Except for one or two children, the class of 3-year-olds stays focused and follows their teacher's lead for 20 minutes straight.

Whether they are 3 or 13, kids love yoga. And why not? Their young bodies are limber and their minds are creative. Yet they still need the exercise and relaxation that adult yoga devotees crave.

"It's relaxing and peaceful and, if you're in a bad mood, it gets you in a bright and dandy mood," said Reisa.

"It helps get all the madness out of me and stuff," echoed Apiphany.

"I have a lot of things to do during the week, and this helps me relax and get all of that stuff out of my mind," added Jenny.

"Every day we need to practice it, and sometimes I do it at home," said 3-year-old Cameron at Temple Beth-El.

"We do yoga because that gives you exercise," added his classmate Rilie.

"The children who you think couldn't sit through it and be calm really do stay focused. The ones who are jittery in class come in here and love it," said the 3-year-olds' classroom teacher, Carey Brent.

"I see results. It's not the light bulb moment when you're teaching them to read. But when they can do something in yoga that they've been trying to do for two months and all of the sudden they can balance and count to 11, they feel like they have conquered the world," Kleinmetz said. "Yoga is their own individual way to express themselves and be really great at something. It's not T-ball, cheerleading, gymnastics or a group sport."

Kids learn poses and remember them quickly. Each week they can hold it a little longer or stretch a little further. These incremental successes build confidence. They are also encouraged to work at their own pace, in their own little world.

"I tell them when they come to yoga they should be able to leave without knowing what anybody else is wearing. We don't have any mirrors in the room," said Kleinmetz, who also teaches classes open to the public for kids ages 2 to 12 at Trainer One Fitness on Central Avenue. She offers different sessions based on age, including a "Mommy and Me" class for 2- to 5-year-olds. Classes cost $7, with discounts for siblings or multiple classes.

The students in Lender's class enjoy a little meditation. She told them they can repeat the popular yoga chant "Om Shanti," which means peace, or they can say something else that makes them happy.

The class cracked up recently when Reisa started chanting "om shopping" by accident.

Lender also teaches adult yoga, prenatal yoga and kids' yoga at Sunflower School, Wellington School and Admiral Farragut Academy.

She talks to her Sunken Gardens class about karma yoga. One student defines it as "doing something for someone else without being told or getting paid or a reward or anything." Like setting the table or making a bath for your mom, Lender suggests.

Jenny says she practiced karma yoga last week by looking after a neighbor's dog while he worked late.

Then Lender dims the lights, plays soft music and leads the students in deep relaxation.

"This is what I consider the dessert of yoga," Lender says. She tells them to slow their breathing. She does the "spaghetti test" to make sure they are relaxed.

"Your arms and legs should just fall to the ground. No el dente noodles," Lender says. "Now I want you to go to your special garden. You may have a fence in your garden, ponds, mermaids, dolphins. I want you to spend the next few moments deciding what to have in your own garden. It might be snowing, it might be hot."

Then the talking stops, and the students lie motionless, with eyes closed, relaxing in their own private garden.

For more information, call Michelle Kleinmetz at 742-8487. To preregister for Haris Lender's next Sunken Gardens yoga session, call 822-6192. Space is limited.

You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

[Last modified April 30, 2005, 23:59:18]

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