WATERLOO - At first glance, it appears that the students in Highland Elementary School's gym are participating in a standard physical education class.
They're lined up in three neat rows, following an instructor's lead during an exercise routine. But these barefoot students aren't doing typical gym class warm-ups.
Instructor Mary McInnis Meyer emphasizes form, posture and breathing. She keeps the students focused on movement, stretching and balance. Each routine ends after about five minutes with students sitting crossed-legged touching their palms together and calling out the Hindi salutation "Namaste" to Meyer with a slight bow of their heads.
The 13 students, in kindergarten through fifth-grade, who gathered in the gym last week were practicing yoga. Meyer, owner of the Field of Yoga studio in Cedar Falls, worked through five routines over the course of an hour. Then Waterloo Community Schools production engineer Dan Evanson began videotaping as they went through them again.
She was invited by Highland's four-member wellness committee to work with the group so the school could record the routines for use in classes. Highland librarian Michelle Holt, a member of the committee, said it was formed in response to growing obesity rates among students. A Black Hawk County health department assessment shows that during the 2007-08 school year, 44 percent of boys and 42 percent girls in the county were overweight or obese.
The recordings will provide more opportunities for students to be active if teachers use them at some point in the day. Holt, who practices yoga and has taught children some poses in the library, said "we want students to be able to use it as a little thing to get ready in the morning" or prepare for test-taking.
Meyer's routines focused on building energy and awareness. They increase the heart rate and can improve circulation, she noted. They can also improve confidence, "and that can be really important for kids."
As they were practicing, she told the students, "You might have already noticed yoga stretches you out. It strengthens your body. It helps to focus your mind; it helps your mind slow down so you don't just jump from one thing to the next."
Spending the day in school "can be fatiguing to the brain," Meyer added later. "And when that happens, learning suffers. Yoga helps us through connecting body and mind and breath to nourish the brain. Even five minutes can produce an energetic effect in the body and mind so that kids are refreshed."
During a break before the videotaping began, students were enthusiastic about the activity.
"Oh, it's easy and fun and a little painful," said second-grader Gage Russell.
"I think they're kind of fun," fifth-grader Treyvon Denton said of the routines. "Because my mom said I should be exercising and this has something to do with exercising. This is kind of a start for me."
Qi'Maurie Anderson-Miller was excited about learning yoga and believes the stretches will make her "strong and healthy." But what really caused the kindergartner to gush was the video camera recording their session.
"I like to be on video and always wanted to be a movie star," she said.