PARIS - Jennifer, Aliénor, Gabriel lay out their mats to help complete the form of a star, and then sit down in the cross-legged lotus position.
"Breathe in through your nose, breathe out...calmly... Feel the air going in. And out," the instructor tells her students. "Straight backs, raise your arms high in the air, as if you were trying to touch the top of a mountain. Now relax. Ok, now everyone stand up, bend down and shake your arms."
Ulrika Dezé is a graduate in educational studies and the founder of Yogamini, a fun, educational approach to children's yoga. This particular lesson is with a class of third-graders at the private Franc-Bourgeois primary school in Paris.
The project was first started three years ago. "The headmistress thought that a lot of the children were stressed. They were getting stomach pains or headaches, and having difficulties concentrating. So, I decided to run a trial yoga workshop for a period of six months," Dezé recalls. "The teachers were satisfied, and the results were so positive that we decided to continue."
Yoga for children is a lot different than yoga for adults. The sessions follow stories as the children mime postures such the Swan, the Candle or the Tree. There is also a relaxation time that focuses on breathing techniques to calm down, drawing mandalas to improve concentration and trust exercises to strengthen relationships with one another. In the space of a few minutes, the hyper kids are fully relaxed and happy; even the most unruly are concentrating, like Paul: "I love Yoga because it's not work and it's relaxing."
Aliénor practices the same exercises at her house before she comes to school: "I work better in class, and I’m able to learn more," she says. The thumbs-up is unanimous among the students -- and their teacher, Caroline Allard, agrees: "After their weekly yoga class, they are more focused and better behaved, and I am able to teach more. Paul can now control himself. As the weeks progress, I've seen his attitude change and his grades go up. School is so often based on grades and intellect, and rarely on the person.'"
Dezé says it is crucial to guide the teachers about the practice of yoga. "They also follow the lessons, and it gives them new techniques to use in class. If the teachers are less stressed and are able to find an inner calm, then they will be able to improve their teaching and better manage their class," she says.
Control over mind and emotions
Training teachers is essential in successfully introducing yoga into schools, says Micheline Flak, a French pioneer who launched her pilot project at the Condorcet secondary school in Paris back in 1973. She also founded the Research in Yoga Education (RYE) center in 1978.
She has trained more than 2,000 teachers, and yoga is now being taught to more than 70,000 pupils in France. Dominique Daumail, a physical education teacher at a high school in the Parisian suburb of Pontoise, teaches teenagers, who are often undisciplined and on edge. She makes them do breathing exercises and insists that it can help get rid of built-up tension and both physical and mental stress.
"They calm down in less than five minutes," says Daumail. "When they notice their own state of calm and concentration, they are then ready to learn."
Laurence Scheibling is a yoga instructor who has started to work with handicapped children in some schools. "With autistic children, I help their awareness of others through listening and relaxation exercises. For those with mobility problems, we work on posture and physical sensation."
Its implementation in schools currently depends on local initiatives by individual teachers who have been trained in yoga, or on instructors who come into schools to give demonstrations.
The French Ministry of Education is now studying a proposal to officially integrate yoga into the curriculum. But one ministry officially remains cautious: "The operation needs to be fully monitored. Schools are extremely vigilant as to the quality of outside instructors and what they are teaching children."