More than a decade ago, pediatric occupational therapist and yoga instructor Leigh Crowder-Biearman was living in San Diego, California, and volunteering at local hospitals. Performing this work, she witnessed the benefits of yoga for kids and wanted to find a way to share that success with others.

“Ten years ago, when I was teaching yoga to kids, people would say ‘That’s so cute!’” she says. “There’s been a big shift in the way we think about mental health and well-being in the last decade.”

In March 2008, with the support of philanthropist Jerry Scheer of T-Bonz Foundation, Crowder-Biearman relocated to Charleston to fulfill her dream of bringing yoga and mindfulness classes to Title 1 elementary schools whose students are predominantly from lower-income families.

Now in its ninth year, nonprofit Yoga Kidz has grown from one to five schools in Charleston and more recently, Myrtle Beach. 

According to its founders, the success of the program requires a few years for schools to “get into the culture” of yoga and mindfulness, but once they do, the rewards are many.

Studies show that yoga classes for students in elementary schools reduce absenteeism and referrals and improves cognitive development. A 2009 study on the effects of yoga on inner-city children's well-being concluded, “Children participating in yoga reported using fewer negative behaviors in response to stress and had better balance than a comparison group."

The study also found yoga could be used as a way to prevent specific negative behaviors.

Currently, Yoga Kidz is offered at Mitchell Elementary, James Simons Montessori and Memminger Elementary in Charleston County.

It's also offered at Socastee and Riverside Elementary in Myrtle Beach. Crowder-Biearman hopes to offer classes soon at Charleston's Burke High School, where students can be trained to teach yoga, further expanding the culture.

James Simons has participated in the program for the past four years. Says Assistant Principal Christine Ryan, “Yoga provides a noncompetitive opportunity for our students to develop a strong self-image and learn ways to manage and relax their minds and bodies.

"In this fast-paced and rather chaotic world, it’s important for kids to be able to tune out ‘the noise’ and focus to grow physically and academically."

She said yoga classes provide a chance for students to learn how to manage stress through breathing and healthy movement. Students benefit from exercises that not only promote balance, stretching and flexibility, but also a more open, receptive and nonjudgmental mind.

Weekly classes consist of yoga-based activities to release physical and emotional energy, develop strength, concentration and self-confidence. Also, breathing exercises help students develop self-control.

As the longest running Yoga Kidz partner, Mitchell Elementary may be the best example of the program's benefits.

“It’s hard to put into words how things come full circle,” says Crowder-Biearman. “We had a student, who is now in eighth grade, talk to first-graders at Mitchell about her experience with the program. She led them in a guided relaxation and it was a jaw-dropping performance. She was just like a professional yoga teacher.”

To learn more about this program visit yogazkids.org.