It may seem impossible to take 11 excited, fidgety third graders on a Friday afternoon and calm them down until they're almost meditating, but yoga instructor Jill Cummings can do it.
Cummings teaches both child and adult classes at her studio in Collingswood. Once a week, she visits a Camden school to teach children, a therapeutic experience she thinks is invaluable to any child, but especially to inner-city children.
"They have so many external challenges," Cummings said. "They can learn to find some sort of relaxation."
Last Friday, Cummings taught a 45-minute lesson at H.B. Wilson Elementary School. She taught at Wilson last year and regularly teaches at Parkside Elementary as well.
Children learn from yoga because it gives them self-awareness, and helps them relax and cope with anger. "It's getting them into their own bodies so they develop body awareness," Cummings said. "They use their breathing. They use their physical bodies."
Teaching children instead of adults is more fun and playful but can also be educational, said Cummings, who offers her services to the schools for free.
She started off her lesson with the class sitting in a circle on yoga mats and passing around a "breathing ball." Whoever held the ball had to stretch it above their head, take a deep breath, and share their name and an activity that calms them down.
Cummings then turned the lesson into a game of Simon Says, and at certain points told the children to "breathe like a bumblebee" or fold their legs "like a pretzel."
She told them to "wiggle it out" after a muscle-straining position.
"Next time you get in a fight with someone, just wiggle it out," Cummings said, while wiggling herself. "You'll forget what you were fighting about."
Their teacher, Joan Trojan, uses aspects of yoga in her classroom every day.
"Whenever we need to calm down, we just stop and do our quiet breathing," said Trojan, an 18-year member of the school district. "It keeps them positive, and they're able to do it themselves."
Trojan would like to see yoga classes throughout the entire district.
"They have so much coming at them from everywhere," she said. "It really helps them harness their inner energy. It helps them focus, helps them cope. I see it immediately."
The children were not only receptive to the idea of yoga but were also excited about it. According to Trojan, they even tell one another to "start breathing" sometimes.
"It helps my heart relax more," said Bryanna Graham, a third grader. "It's very fun."
Cummings, 35, taught yoga in Philadelphia as a social worker until a few years ago, when she moved to Collingswood and opened her studio, Yogawood. In Philadelphia, she taught yoga to child victims of violent crimes or those who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The system wasn't helping them find those internal coping skills," she said.
As soon as she moved, she looked for a place to offer yoga to youngsters in need.
At the end of every lesson, she instructs the children to lie down on their yoga mats, close their eyes, and breathe. She tells them to breathe in the feelings "you really deserve to feel," like happiness and joy, and "let go of the feelings that don't feel so good," like sadness, anger, and jealousy.