Written by Rebecca Jones

Tom Barela, the physical education teacher at Denver’s Colfax Elementary School, grew up playing football and basketball in his gym student days.

But on Monday, he was down on the floor alongside a class of kindergartners roaring like a baby dragon, then hissing like a cobra, then steadying himself like a frog on a lily pad.

Leading the class was yoga instructor Allyson Levine, who started coming to the west Denver school four years ago to offer three classes a week to supplement the school’s P.E. offerings.

This year, she’s leading 12 classes a week at the school, thanks to a partnership between DPS and The Wellness Initiative, a four-year-old Boulder-based nonprofit that provides yoga instruction to more than 2,000 students in 20 predominantly low-income schools.

For 45 minutes, Levine put the students through a series of breathing exercises, stretching and flexibility routines, creative visualization, and movements to improve balance and focus.

Preliminary findings of research on the effects of TWI’s yoga instruction in public schools indicate that at least half of the students who participate report improved physical prowess as well as more self-confidence and optimism, and that 60 to 70 percent used the breathing and visualization exercises they learned in yoga to help them outside of gym class.

Barela couldn’t be more pleased, even though the yoga takes up a third of his students’ gym class time each week.

“At first, I wasn’t quite sure about it. But now I think it’s great,” he said. “Even though it isn’t vigorous exercise, it is moderate activity, and it improves the students flexibility. It also helps them learn to rest and to focus better.”

He’s had some physically disabled students who excel at the activity.

“Not every child is an amazing athlete,” Barela said, “but I have some who are amazing at yoga.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow…

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