LINCOLN — Under the watchful eyes of instructors Deb Reddy and Paula Paluch, a group of perhaps a dozen Northern Elementary School students performed an assortment of body moves on a classroom floor early Monday afternoon.
“OK, we're doing the 'Down Dog,'” Paluch announced to the girls as the tune “Township Krishna,” sung by Krishna Das, blared from a small CD player. “Now, swing to the 'Warrior 1.'”
A few seconds passed, and Paluch asked the kids to move to the “Warrior 2,” then to the “Windmill” and “Cobra” before switching back to the “Down Dog.”
When the session ended, a younger group of girls took to the mats to attempt similar moves.
Suddenly, a female voice announced over the intercom, “Will Mrs. Reddy please call the office?” She was so busy, Paluch went to the classroom phone instead, then returned.
“You're not going to believe this, but the Rhode Island Association of the PTA called, and they want us to perform at their meeting in March!” Paluch exclaimed.
A stunned Reddy responded, “You're kidding, right?”
That, in a nutshell, explains just how big the tandem's teaching of hatha yoga at this Manville school has become over the past few days.
According to the Web site “Lifescript: Healthy Living for Women,” hatha yoga is a low-impact exercise for the body and mind that combines different asanas, or postures, with a deep breathing technique called “pranayama” to promote flexibility, balance and relaxation.
It's considered the most commonly-practiced yoga style in the United States today.
On Friday, 26 students performed such “asanas” in front of 450 invitees at the R.I. Healthy Schools Coalition's Breakfast for School Leaders at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick, and apparently wowed them all.
The “crowning” moment? A standing ovation.
“After the performance, a woman came up to me – she said she was with RIAHPERD (an acronym for R.I. Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance); she asked if we'd perform there, and I don't even know where it is,” Reddy offered. “We're still trying to iron out the details.
“Honestly, I got phone calls and e-mails all weekend from people who must have seen our exhibition in Warwick,” she added. “They made those messages very personal, and everything I got back was totally positive … I think we were the hit of the breakfast!”
Lincoln Superintendent of Schools Georgia Fortunato was so impressed at what she witnessed, she needed perhaps an hour to phone The Times to rave about it.
“It was terrific,” she said. “It's all about maintaining healthy bodies and healthy minds.”
Truth be told, it's rather by whimsy how Reddy introduced yoga to Northern students eight years ago, not long after she moved over from Lincoln Middle School.
“I was looking through the Sportime catalog, and I saw some mats; I had been practicing yoga as a student, and I wanted to introduce something new to the children,” she revealed. “I ordered Jenny Wu mats from Hawaii back then, 24 in all. I had no idea what I was doing, except that I had taken some classes.
“I just put the mats out and we started doing poses,” she continued. “It just stuck.”
Reddy indicated some youngsters wanted to partake in yoga in the school district's “Before the Bell” program, which is conducted before the first class begins.
A few years later, Paluch – a third-grade teacher – started doing yoga, joined in Reddy's instruction at school and now teaches it in her own classroom. She even runs her own Shanti Yoga Studio in Rehoboth, while Reddy coaches those at Power Yoga Plus, and even Fidelity Insurance, in Smithfield.
Both attained 200 hours of “dharma” instruction certification in Puerto Rico in July 2010, so are more than qualified. Reddy maintained, as a P.E. instructor, she reaches every student, and uses it to this day as a warm-up for physical activities that occur later in class.
“I started taking it because it was a relaxing form of exercise, but I also came to know it was a way of staying fit, too,” Paluch noted. “It requires balance, focus, strength. We had participated in a 'kirtan' ceremony, or a series of yoga poses, in Puerto Rico, and we figured we'd bring it back to school. We wanted to expose the children to this beautiful practice that's well over 3,000 years old.”
Yoga has been defined as an ancient Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline based on a harmonizing system of development for the body, mind and spirit. The continued practice of breath control, simple meditation and adopting specific bodily postures leads folks of all ages to a sense of peace and well-being, and also a feeling of being one with the environment.
Poses tone the entire body, strengthen bones and muscles, correct posture, improve breathing and increase energy.
Dan Grothues, a University of Rhode Island senior, makes the trek to Northern as part of his eight-week student teaching program, and he admitted he's never seen anything like it.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was great,” he said. “What a phenomenal opportunity this is for the kids, and for me. I'm getting experience that other student teachers, I don't think, have. I told Mrs. Reddy this is an outstanding way for them to stretch their bodies.”
Of course, these teachers keep it simple with the kids.
“This makes me feel more relaxed; it helps me be more focused,” said Marisa Martinelli, a nine-year-old fourth grader. “I've only been doing this about three weeks, not including P.E. class., and I love it. You do get sweaty sometimes, but it depends on the weather, too. I don't mind; this is fun!
“If we couldn't do this, I'd be really disappointed,” she continued. “This is a great opportunity because it teaches you self-discipline, and also calms you down.”
Little Samantha Kratman, at 7 a second grader, claimed she adores gymnastics, and yoga is an aid to that endeavor.
“It helps me with my stretching and strength,” she grinned. “Someday, I want to be a gymnastics or a yoga teacher. I love both!”
Mentioned Ainsley Magliocco, a 10-year-old fifth grader: “It relaxes me. It helps me get all the stress out of my body. I breathe and sit and do poses; they make me feel like I'm accomplishing something.”
Fellow fifth-grader Kristin Drainville admitted she was astounded at the reception she and her schoolmates received at Crowne Plaza.
“It was loud, and really exciting,” she said. “I thought we did pretty well, but not that well. I enjoy this because it cleans my mind out. If I'm having a rough day, and we have yoga practice, I walk around and feel better afterward. You feel like you're totally different physically and mentally.
“You don't have to work when you're doing poses, but you still feel like you're doing something totally healthy.”
Reddy indicated Northern is a “AHIMSA” school, and – when the first day of classes arrived – she discussed it with the children.
“Basically, it just means we should be kind to ourselves and all living things,” she said. “Say there's a spider in the room; I ask a child to pick it up with a piece of paper and put it outside. It encompasses everything. So does yoga.
“I love seeing the kids get stronger, longer and leaner,” she added. “I enjoy seeing the confidence they're building by being able to do a pose one week, and move onto another, more sophisticated pose the next. I'll see them out at recess. They'll bring their mats and do the poses among themselves. It makes me so happy.
“I've seen a huge difference in the students – in strength, flexibility and a desire to learn new poses. I've got kids who can do 'chatterunga,' which is a low plank or push-up. It's so great when they want to show me their muscles once they've finished. They're also learning how to care for their mats, roll them up and treat them like their favorite toys. They're learning respect and reverence for the practice.
“Paula and I are both hoping they will carry this into adulthood. I know kids in this school who will want to keep practicing.”
On occasion, Paluch involves herself in the teaching.
“It just makes me feel more relaxed, more balanced, and I become less of a 'Type A' person,” she laughed. “I do like order and structure, but, with yoga, there's no such thing. There's no such thing as a perfect pose. It's important to realize that being in flux is OK, and actually is very beautiful.
“Anybody can do this, as you can offer modifications for people to be successful. It's the union of mind, body and spirit, and the stilling of fluctuations of the mind … It's also non-competitive. The children know that nobody's looking at them because they're trying to do the poses themselves.”