Yoga a draw for Bethel students seeking fitness

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BETHEL, Conn. (AP) — Jessica Smith doesn't stress out before her English class.

Instead, she stands tall and stretches into the warrior pose, connecting herself with the planet's energy. And she breathes deeply.

"Yoga opens my mind," said Smith, a 16-year-old Bethel High School student. "It brings out my creative side in my English class. It helps me focus."

Smith is one of 20 students enrolled in a new yoga class offered at Bethel High School. It's believed to be the first such class in the state to have a specific, state-approved yoga curriculum.

It's also among a growing number of yoga courses offered as an elective in physical education programs in public schools around the country.

Yoga, an ancient discipline rooted in Hindu and Buddhist culture and belief, is known for its practice of mindfulness. But it has raised concern among some U.S. parents that it promotes Asian religions.

Last year, parents filed a lawsuit against a San Diego school district arguing that their child's elementary school yoga class was a religious practice.

"I don't refer to any religion at all in the class," said Bethel High health teacher Stacie Kaye, who created and teaches the course. "Yoga knows no religion. It knows no god. It's an inner journey."

Kaye said parents, administrators and students have been supportive of the class and no one has raised religious objections.

Bethel High Principal Christopher Troetti said Kaye's yoga class was approved by district officials, mindful of the separation of church and state. He praised yoga's holistic practice, especially among teenagers who face daily stress.

"Our students have a lot of pressures. They are asked to do a lot of different things to achieve their goals," Troetti said.

Schools Superintendent Christine Carver also praised the course as an elective that promotes "fitness" and "relaxation."

"It's a wonderful way to teach our kids coping skills," Carver said.

Students love the class, too. In fact, the yoga class filled up quickly as word spread that it was being offered to juniors and seniors.

Thomas Smith never practiced yoga before Kaye's class. He is one of two boys in the class, but that doesn't bother him because the class is a judgment-free zone, he said.

"I'll come into the class tired and crabby and come out a bit more ready to take on the day," he said.

Smith could have taken any elective for a physical education requirement, but he tried yoga to help him cope with being a teenager.

"I'm a junior in high school and that's stressful, especially when people start talking to you about college and the responsibilities that come with adulthood," he said.

Scientific evidence suggests yoga has a positive effect on high school students, from improved test scores to curbing substance abuse to managing anger. During a recent class, Kaye took students through various poses, all the while stressing their breathing.

For Smith, learning how to breathe deeply has also helped her relationships.

"One morning, I was having a rough time with my dad," Smith said. "When I got to yoga class, I learned that I needed to move from grudges to acceptance."

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