In times of war and heightened security almost everywhere you turn, more and more people are looking for effective ways of dealing with stress. That might take the form of hanging out with friends at a bar, going fishing, or...taking a yoga class.
Yoga, the ancient Hindu practice of mind and body coordination, is having a resurgence in popularity in the United States. Once relegated to a few fringe followers in the 1960s, in recent years yoga has expanded into an all-American fad, whose followers include everyone from Hollywood stars, to corporate workers to children. Some private yoga schools offer classes for children as young as four years old. But why do children need to relax?
Just steps from the U.S. Capitol building, a school bus unloads a group of children in front of Capitol Hill Yoga for their once-a-week yoga class. Jennifer Dalzell, mother of a six-year-old student, says she has been bringing her daughter to yoga for the past two years.
"I think because she's a pretty active child and she moves around a lot, sort of spastically and this helps her to kind of be aware of her body movements," she said. "And it's also the kindergarten teacher who teaches this class is wonderful with the kids. We really like her."
"... Let me ask you this: I'm going to ask you to do as good a job as you did last time," said Gretchen Maisch is a full-time kindergarten teacher at the Capitol Hill Day School and part-time yoga instructor at Capitol Hill Yoga. "No calling out, take turns talking, one at a time. Sandra, take a deep breath, Robert, are you ready? Deep breath and long spine, ooooommmmm..."
Twelve students between the ages of four and seven follow her in a series of deep breathing exercises, stretches and poses to resemble wild animals.
"Slither forward...you can be any kind of snake you want...sssssssss...sssssss...and push back into puppy...WOOF WOOF WOOF!" instructed Ms. Maisch.
'There's so many things in a story that you can associate with a yoga pose like a snake can become a cobra, a tree can be a tree pose, a mountain, a mountain pose," she continued. "There are so many things animals, tons and tons of animals which is very gripping for this age group."
Instructor Gretchen Maisch says children's yoga classes are becoming very popular now, but were practically non-existent when she started four years ago.
Yoga has been offered in some public schools, but has occasionally sparked controversy - parents, concerned that yoga focuses on eastern religions, infringes on the division of church and state.
Gretchen Maisch says while traditional yoga may invoke Hindi spiritual principles, her class combines exercise with storytelling - stories with messages about love or honesty or courage. Ms. Maisch says she believes yoga is a healthy way for children to identify and deal with fears they may have in an increasingly uncertain world.
"I think there's a higher level of anxiety in children now," she said. "There was a lot of conversation in yoga during the pre-war with Iraq and during the war, where as a kindergarten teacher I rarely hear those conversations in the classrooms. But in here for some reason, the kids make the connection between chanting 'shanti' [Hindu word for peace] and peace in here to peace in the world as opposed to violence in the world.
"So, because they make that connection we've had some amazing discussions at the end of class that are spontaneous," continued Ms. Maisch, "I never bring it up but they have a need to talk about it."
At the end of class, the kids weigh in on what they think of their class.
"It helps you relax and you're stretching your body and it's making you relax so you don't have to be all crazy and wild," said one of the students when asked what does she like most about yoga.
"My name is Teva," another one introduced herself. "I took yoga for about three years. And I really, really like my teacher pose which is really lotus, we call it the 'bye bye teacher' pose since the kids say 'bye bye teacher' when they fall over."
"I like the poses. And I like the candle one the best. It's like you put your feet up and your elbows like this and your feet to straight," described a student.
"Uh-uh," he answered, when answered if it is hard to do.
"My name is Isaac and I started yoga when I was in pre-K [pre-kindergarten] and I've been doing this for a long time and I'm five and a half now and I'm in kindergarten," said Isaac.
"My name is Teddy and I really like yoga because it calms your body down a lot and I really like [the pose] 'turn your dryer on high,'" said Teddy. "And when we make the poses up and it's like really, really cool and I've only been taking yoga for three weeks."
Another student talked of relaxing effects of yoga. "My name's Ava and I really like yoga because it gives your body time to relax at story-time, that's why I like it because school is sometimes really tiring and so it's good to be at yoga," she said.
Alison emphasized on the same affects. "My name is Alison. And after school, I get really tired because I have a lot of stuff to do and it really makes you feel good, it makes you feel strong because it calms your body down," she said.
Some children like it more than gym classes at schools. "Yeh," said one of them. "Because I don't really take gym classes."
"My name is Andrew. And I like yoga because when you're doing all the poses it feels like you're asleep," said Andrew. He has been taking yoga classes "six more days than Teddy."
After an hour stretching and slithering like a snake, or flying like a butterfly or riding an imaginary bicycle, the children at Capitol Hill Yoga scurry to put their shoes on and get back on the bus waiting to take them home.