On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the multi-purpose room at BRICK Avon Academy in the South Ward transforms into a private yoga studio. Colorful mats are spread across the floor in neat rows, sneakers line the back wall, and kids ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade take their places—silently, zen-like—on the mats before yoga instructor Jennifer Kohl.
"Breathe in and out," says Kohl, founder of Lotus Yoga Studios located in Montclair and Newark. "You guys getting warm?"
Using two metal cymbals and a soft, honey-sweet voice, Kohl instructs the students on deep breathing while thinking of "something that makes them happy." The kids, all 31 of them, sit still with their eyes closed, lips pursed, relishing the tranquility often times missing from their lives.
For more than five years, Kohl, the has taught meditation and yoga to 23 schools spanning New Jersey, including 16 in Newark alone, as part of the Lotus in Action (LIA) program. LIA's mission is to bring yoga to underserved people as a way to create positive change and develop well-being.
"The minute we opened [Lotus Yoga], we wanted to focus on doing outreach, taking yoga and mediation to anywhere you wouldn't otherwise [find it]," said Kohl, who introduced LIA to Avon and the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center.
The nonprofit organization has brought the yoga program to detention centers, hospitals, rehab centers, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, and public schools. LIA's success in schools has a reach that spans much farther than the makeshift yoga studio. Students at Avon have adopted yamas, or the core principles of yoga, such as harmlessness, truthfulness and non-stealing.
"They apply yoga in the classroom," said Kathy Carlson, a four-year teacher whose sixth through eighth grade special needs class performs yoga twice a week. "To them, non-stealing means not talking while doing yoga."
Kohl has seen her students embrace the philosophy behind yoga. She said her older students often apply principles like respect and kindness to every day life.
The students may look whimsical performing yoga, but it's quickly clear how seriously they take their lessons. Students from three separate classes were scattered in the room on a rainy Wednesday morning, stomping their feet and stretching their arms to mimic the thunder and lightning outside. Student volunteers led others on positions like the downward dog and bridge, a precarious move requiring the help of a partner.
"My favorite part is the tree pose," said Gisselle Santiago, 14, of the sometimes wobbly position. "At first I wasn't paying attention, but Miss Jennifer told me to find a spot on the floor [to stare at]."
It took the boys, on the other hand, a bit longer to warm up to practicing yoga in school.
"The girls upstairs, they'd be laughing because we take yoga," said student Dwight Peebles.
"What did Miss Jennifer tell you about sports teams?" Kohl retorted. "All professional sports teams do yoga."
Kohl shares a bond with the students, some of whom she's been teaching for years. After Wednesday's lesson, the students were all abuzz about a recent get-together at one of Kohl's studios, where they enjoyed quality time together—and healthy, vegan fare.
"What I see in all these kids is they're all amazing, sweet, wonderful, open," said Kohl. "What I see is their willingness to try new things—whether it's yoga or tofu hot dogs."
Watch a video of the students performing yoga, above.