Springs becomes yoga capital for kids

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Springs has become the yoga capital of the region for school kids, thanks to a newly expanded yoga program at the Springs School.

Every day, lines of children bundled in winter clothes take a short walk from the school to the Springs Youth Center. During the walk, the kids get started, breathing deeply and quieting their minds in preparation for a half hour immersed in the ancient art of stretching and relaxation.

On Monday morning, yoga teacher Linda Muse was leading a kindergarten class through its first experience with yoga, as the kids twisted and turned, playing a game called “If I were a tree, I wouldn’t look like me, I would look like this”: freezing in contorted playful variations on the yogic tree pose. After a few silly minutes, the kids relaxed on their yoga mats, then responded enthusiastically to Ms. Muse’s direction for them to say the word “namaste,” which means, “I bow to you,” or peace.

Five kids who’d been chosen as “body checkers” walked around among the relaxed students, holding up legs and arms to make sure the kids on the floor had given up all the tension in their bodies.

The program is run by Kate Rabinowitz, who has been teaching yoga at the Springs School since last February. But this year, thanks to grants from two anonymous donors in East Hampton, she has brought in two other teachers and an occasional guest teacher from the Kripalu Yoga Center in New York. Ms. Muse and Jenna Minardi teach 17 classes a week to kids from kindergarten to sixth grade. When she makes her occasional guest appearances, Anita McFarlane helps kids develop a yoga circus, balancing peacock feathers and other tricks.

Last year, when the youth center was still under construction, Ms. Rabinowitz would wheel a cart full of yoga mats from classroom to classroom, moving desks out of the way and sweeping the floors clean before beginning her class. Even then, students were distracted by the blackboards and the constant reminders of their class assignments and obligations.

When East Hampton Town, which runs the youth center on grounds it leases from the school district, finished the building project, Ms. Rabinowitz realized that a perfect, separate space for yoga was just a short walk away from the school.

“It’s an incredible luxury,” said Ms. Muse as she took a brief break Monday between kindergarten classes in the youth center. “It’s quiet, clean and bright. It’s better than a gym. It’s a clear separate space.”

Ms. Rabinowitz, an experienced yoga teacher, heard several years ago about a program called Yoga Ed, a 36-week series of classes started by Tara Guber in the inner city schools of Los Angeles.

“The kids were learning how to listen, focus, concentrate, relax and express their feelings,” she said. “They learn about stress and anxiety, positive choices, respecting others and finding unity in differences.”

Ms. Rabinowitz, who lives in Springs and has two children in the district, trained with Yoga Ed instructors in New York. Both district superintendent Thomas Quinn and principal Eric Casole enthusiastically signed on to the idea of having a similar program in their school. This fall, the town agreed to let the teachers use the youth center space.

“It’s amazing how progressive this school is,” she said. “This does go up into the high school if the high school is interested. It’s my dream and the dream of my team to have this in all the schools on the East End.”

The yoga classes in the Springs School run in an eight-week series for the students in kindergarten through fifth grade; the sixth-graders have a 10-week-long period devoted exclusively to yoga. Teachers can take yoga classes after school.

Ms. Rabinowitz said that the pilot program this year cost $30,000 and could be extended to include the seventh and eighth graders in the Springs School, who, she added, are at a crucial age in terms of their body consciousness and need for stress relief.

A gaggle of fourth graders was approaching the youth center for their first class at noon on Monday.

“They’re all like ducklings coming up,” said Ms. Rabinowitz, opening the door to the youth center and reminding the students to begin their yoga by calming their bodies before entering the open, airy room.

The kids moved quickly through several basic yoga principles, controlling their breath and learning about the importance of their spine in all of the motions that they engage in.

Then, Ms. Rabinowitz told them that they were all going on an imaginary trip. How should they travel, she asked.

One child suggested an airplane. One suggested a bomber, but then giggled at the inappropriateness of a yoga bomber. By the time they’d decided on a method, the students were informed that they were landing in Ecuador, where they’d drive a Jeep to a river, where they’d float in the water, become the water, then go to a beautiful forest of trees.

The kids were in a circle then, in tree pose, pressing their hands against the hands of the students next to them, who were holding them up. They began making frog and bird noises after they heard they had become a rainforest, that they’d achieved a union with each other and nature.

“We’re raising kids’ awareness for something they can practice all their lives,” said Ms. Rabinowitz. “Yoga’s not for just adults and way-out people. A lot of kids say they do it at home. Yoga has relaxed them and they really have fun. It makes them want to turn off their TV and their machines, get outside more and take care of their bodies.”

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