By Sharon Noguchi
Luis Gutierrez is sounding like a human kazoo, demonstrating what he calls the “evilbuster breath.” As the speaker’s hands tent his nose and he exhales in a loud hum, few of the two dozen freshmen at Overfelt High in San Jose are smirking or rolling their eyes.
After the students try this newest yoga technique and report vibrations in their noses, throats and brains, Gutierrez explains the breathing will help calm their nerves. Use this in many situations, he advises, including the times when teachers suddenly call on you in class.
What began as small pilot programs has suddenly spread as more South Bay schools in neighborhoods challenged by poverty, drugs and gang violence turn to the power of yoga as a stress reducer. Classes by Youth Empowerment Seminars, or YES!, teach not only breathing but nutrition, lifestyle and values discussion.
Overfelt Principal Vito Chiala is so impressed with the changes YES! has induced in some of the toughest freshmen that he hopes to offer the six-week program to the whole freshman class in January. Initially a skeptic, Chiala himself took a course and found that practice every morning helps him deal calmly with the demands of leading a 1,730-student school in East San Jose.
At nearby Yerba Buena High, all 540 freshmen are taking YES! after a pilot project last spring proved successful. Principal Juan Cruz reports that his school’s football team now uses yoga as a way to focus before games and to decompress afterward.
When his friends found out, hefty linebacker Brian Zarate, 17, said, their reaction was “”’Ha ha, you’re doing yoga!’“” he said. But he didn’t care, because yoga has improved his sleep and his game.
At schools hard hit by neighborhood violence, gang pressure, parental job loss and homelessness, the centuries-old Indian discipline of yoga may turn out to be an effective tool in helping young people cope with both crises and day-to-day life.
“We can’t change the big system, but we can definitely change the kids’ way of dealing with all the stress,” said teacher Jenna Granger of the International Association for Human Values, the parent group of YES!
“People who get to experience yoga usually come from a privileged background,” said Gutierrez, who is training to be a YES! instructor. In contrast, the foundation brings its stress-reducing program to communities suffering from poverty, crime and disaster, from destitute Haiti to bereft post-Katrina New Orleans.
The six-week class teaches students to avoid conflict, “how to focus on school and how to study better,” said Overfelt freshman Rosavelia Valencia, 14.
Classmate Priscilla Orabuena, 15, said the skills are useful. “When you are going to get into a fight” — like when people are talking about you, she said — “you want to do something to them. But you breathe and feel calm and just walk away.”
Breathing away stress
The program uses games — last week at Overfelt, students were playing musical yoga mats — to reach students.
But the focus is on breathing techniques to deal with stress. According to surveys, East Side students report the program has improved their sleep, focus, calmness and mood, and general feeling, said Irene Yamane, a program manager.
At first, students are skeptical. “I don’t really like doing things in front of people,” like stretching, Overfelt freshman Gina De La Rosa said.
“I have school stress. I have drama on the street, I could get jammed,” the 14-year-old said. At home, her bedridden mother is seriously ill. “I have a lot of pressure built up inside of me, and when it comes out, I erupt.”
But while she downplays the effect of YES!, she’s also used its techniques. Recently, in the midst of a classroom confrontation, she suddenly remembered: just breathe.
She did. She calmed down. And she realized, “I don’t have to scare teachers.”
Her mother, Lucy Ramirez, has noticed a difference, as if Gina has emerged from a dark shadow.
Chiala hopes YES! will give kids tools to help stay clam, better control impulses and take care of themselves.
How to explain the power of the breath over human emotions? “It sounds like Darth Vader,” said An Ha, 14, a Yerba Buena freshman. She uses it when her little brother behaves annoyingly.
With yoga breathing, said Alejandro Adame, 14, an Overfelt freshman, “You just take a moment to not get angry.”
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775.
The International Association for Human Values raised $70,000 last spring at a yoga-thon to fund teaching yoga to Bay Area students. The group hopes to secure donations or grants to continue those classes and to expand to more campuses, because the schools where it teaches -- in East San Jose and Milpitas -- can't pay for the classes. To help, contact Rekha Kodialbail at 408-230-6053 or firstname.lastname@example.org.