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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Jackson Turner, front left, bends over as Renaissance Academy second-graders learn yoga from Yael Calhoun. Calhoun has trained more than 300 teachers.

All the chairs in the classroom are tucked neatly beneath the corresponding desks. Pencils are set aside, textbooks haphazardly abandoned.

It's yoga time.

"We're going to use our bodies to make our minds stronger," says yoga master Yael Calhoun, instructing a class of second-graders to follow as she gently sways from side to side, arms reaching out like wind-blown tree branches.

As co-founder of the nonprofit organization GreenTREE Yoga, Calhoun has spent the past year promoting short, periodic yoga breaks in Utah elementary schools. The Utah State Office of Education recently approved GreenTREE Yoga's program — simple, instructional CDs teachers can pop into the stereo three

times a day — as a physical education curriculum option. Calhoun has taken more than 300 teachers through the training process so far.

"We recommend teachers provide classroom breaks of about five to 10 minutes in length to get kids out of their seats, increase their flexibility and get them breathing deeply," said Frank Wojtech, health and physical education specialist for the state office. "Yoga is nice because it incorporates all three of those things."

The National Association for Sports and Physical Education recommends schools provide 150 minutes of physical education instruction weekly. In many Utah elementary schools, however, students only spend 30 minutes a week with a certified physical education instructor, Wojtech said. Classroom teachers, many of whom have little or no training in teaching athletics, are responsible for providing the remaining 120 minutes of exercise.

"It's tough to get that physical instruction in because the teachers have so many demands on their time," said Mountain View Elementary principal John Erlacher. His school in Salt Lake City has been collaborating with GreenTREE Yoga since spring. "We felt like yoga was something simple we could try to get our kids more active."

As a former teacher herself, Calhoun is familiar with the struggle to find time between academic subjects to get students up and moving. But, she argues taking a break to stretch and relax, actually contributes to a better classroom environment.

"Yoga calms the mind and decreases stress," she said. "It builds strength, concentration, balance and self confidence. The kids really love it, too, because it's just fun."

Students at Renaissance Academy in Orem certainly enjoyed themselves when Calhoun walked them through a few poses last week. She visited the school to get teachers started using GreenTREE Yoga's recorded breaks.

"I think yoga is relaxing," said 10-year-old Julia Snarr. "It makes me feel refreshed and less stressed."

"I hope we do it every day," said 6-year-old Ethan Jones.

The children were gung-ho, but the classrooms weren't exactly Zen-like. There was more wobbling going on than peaceful posing, more giggling than systematic deep breathing. Some children stretched too far and fell over.

Calhoun's not worried, though. The point of the exercise isn't, after all, to make the children into yoga masters.

"The idea is to introduce these kids to a powerful tool," she said. "It's about teaching them about lifelong health, fitness and stress management."

E-mail: estuart@desnews.com