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Yoga helps free children's mind, teaches movement and flexibility

Holistic science making inroads among youths

Tiny legs shoot up in the air as children roll up on their backs and try to catch a breath. Feet flicker and wave as the children mold their bodies into candlesticks.

Trying to reach new heights, children stretch their arms up high and flex their legs to resemble snakes and dogs.

Children are pretzel-flexing their bodies in yoga classes at the Center of Rehabilitative Education in Knoxville, Tenn.

Beyond the physical, the souls of these little bodies are being fed creativity through storytelling, music and props "to keep their attention but still get something out of the basic techniques of yoga," said Kelly Genna, who owns the C.O.R.E. Family Yoga Center with her husband Gary.

The holistic ancient Indian science of freeing minds from distractions has even found its way into children's birthday parties and Sunday school lessons.

"Children need a space to come and explore movement," said Genna, a certified yoga instructor.

Genna has practiced the principles of asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) for 15 years. She said that for children who lug heavy backpacks and sit in front of a television for entertainment, "yoga is a way to encourage their bodies to move and be flexible; to encourage parts of their bodies that they don't move."

In a 45-minute class "they begin to understand the power of their bodies, the power of breath," she said.

With classes for adolescents 10 and up, Genna said, "yoga provides an opportunity to stop and experience who they really are."

Shakta Kaur Khalsa, author of "Fly Like a Butterfly: Yoga for Children," said yoga helps children learn from their experiences.

Khalsa said, "It leads them to their own inner teacher with words and actions."

With his hand on his chest, Genna's son, Evan, 13, takes slow, deep breaths in and then exhales as he seeks a state of calmness.

Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder at the age of 4, "Evan knows when he is faced with anxiety or fear how to bring his high energy down," Genna said.

The exercise, she said, "builds concentration, self-esteem; the benefits are so positive. Why wouldn't you want a child to do it?" said Genna, who also has a 1-year-old daughter, Cobi.

The doubt sets in when "people equate yoga with a religion," said Mebbie Ewan, who teaches children's yoga at C.O.R.E. and Nature's Way Montessori.

"This is a roadblock to something that helps children be better athletes and students," Ewan explained.