POSTED: 01/21/2015 08:58:26 PM PST 0 COMMENTS| UPDATED: 4 MONTHS AGO
It's easy to envision Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck lifting weights. After all, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound two-time Super Bowl champion is an imposing figure.
What about yoga?
That's exactly what a crowd gathered Wednesday morning inside a gym in East Palo Alto witnessed as Tuck demonstrated the sun salutation, upward-facing dog and tree pose next to five students from Costano School & 49ers Academy, along with his son Jayce.
"Now that's interesting," 12-year-old Paloma Garcia said about watching an NFL player balance on a blue mat.
"I think it could be something interesting to do every day," she added. "That way you won't be so stressed and you won't get wrinkles."
The seventh-grader will soon get her turn to perform yoga exercises, as will most of the kids in the Ravenswood City School District.
Thanks to a partnership with the Sonima Foundation, which is based in Southern California, 3,400 students from five schools in East Palo Alto and two in Menlo Park will join more than 24,000 boys and girls across San Diego County, New York, Houston and Florida in a yoga-based health and wellness program aimed at improving their mindfulness and nutrition.
"We're thinking that we will see results within the first two months," said Superintendent Dr. Gloria M. Hernandez-Goff, who expects immediate improvements in attendance and office referrals. "That's how much impact this program has. And then, of course, there is the long term, which has a lot to do with building those resiliency skills, learning how to cope with issues and problems and self regulation when things don't go well."
The Sonima Foundation curriculum, which is funded for three years, aims to provide children -- in this case transitional kindergarten through eighth grade -- with the skills to handle stressful situations, curtail bullying and violence, prevent obesity, and improve their ability to absorb information in the classroom.
"Success is synergistic with environment," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who praised the district for not dismissing the importance of mindfulness. "Create the right conditions, create the right climate, success becomes irresistible. So as we try to struggle to address the issue of academic achievement, we have to be cognizant of the conditions to which we are trying to advance that principle."
Hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, chairman of the Sonima Foundation Board, added: "If we could have the kids in Ravenswood achieve in mind, body, soul and spirit the level of health and wellness that out lieutenant governor's hair exemplifies, this will be the greatest success in the history all projects."
But will it work?
That's the task of a research team from Stanford University, which over the next four years will study the progress of current third- and fifth-graders. The plan is to employ a multi-method approach that involves biology, physiology and psychology -- a complete bio-psychosocial assessment -- to measure their emotions and behavior, academic and cognitive strengths and weaknesses, brain activity and structure, stress-related hormone levels, and sleep patterns.
"We're really looking forward to a year from now -- when I tell you this is effective -- for you not to only take it on my word, but for you to also have data," said Dr. Victor Carrion, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center.
Carrion is also the director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.
In 2012, he launched a mindfulness program in the Ravenswood City School District to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in teens that was featured on a PBS NewsHour segment. Jones and his wife happened to catch the broadcast, and because Carrion has done pro bono work with students and parents in the community for years, the partnership between the district, Stanford and the Sonima Foundation was forged.
The four-year study is also in partnership with the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego.
"This is something that for years has been a gap in our educational system," Carrion said. "There's nothing ... that teaches children to socialize and to be in touch with their emotions and to take care of their inner health."
Hernandez-Goff traveled last spring to Encinitas, where Sonima sprouted, to see and learn more. When she read documents detailing academic outcomes over the years, it was a no-brainer to bring yoga to East Palo Alto and Menlo Park classrooms.
"I was sold right then and there," Hernandez-Goff said.
To her, a healthy lifestyle is essential, just like learning your ABCs, or that two plus two equals four.
"As educators we know that we need to care for the whole child," Hernandez-Goff said. "It's not just the basic curriculum of math, reading strategies, science and history. There are so many other facets, and those other facets are what assists the students to succeed in the core content areas."
For the next three years, and possibly longer, the core curriculum at each campus -- Belle Haven School, Brentwood Academy, Cesar Chavez & Green Oaks Academy, Costano School & 49ers Academy, Los Robles Paul Immersion Magnet Academy, Ronald McNair Middle School, Willow Oaks Schools -- will include health and wellness, which will be taught twice a week.
There are 15 instructors across the sites, one assigned for every 250 kids. Each class will range from 20 to 40 minutes in duration, depending on the age group. And it comes at no cost to the school district, with the Sonima Foundation footing the bill.
"They are covering everything from the yoga mats, to the cleaning machines to clean the mats, to the training of the instructors, the curriculum, health and benefits," said Hernandez-Goff, who hopes to kick off the program next month after the research team completes its initial baseline assessments.
"We're ready to roll," Hernandez-Goff added. "We have the staff hired, they've been trained, our schools have modified their calendars, given room for the classes to be held."
And if a 6-foot-5, 265-pound NFL athlete can do it, there's no reason for the kids to shy away from their inner upward-facing dog.
"I think as an athlete, we understand that there's a lot of stuff that helps us do what we do on the football field," said Tuck, who has been doing types of yoga for almost 14 years and is a board member for the Sonima Foundation. "Now, a lot of that has a lot to do with our flexibility, our state of mind and I think yoga does a tremendous number on both of those things. And I hope that just by me doing this it opens the kids' minds to maybe giving it a shot -- and I know if they give it a shot, then it will do wonders for them as well."
Email Vytas Mazeika at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him atTwitter.com/dailynewsvytas.