On a brilliantly bright warm afternoon, one week before Christmas, a group of seven teenagers took a yoga class, part of a program called SOMFAB. Despite the sublime San Diego weather, these kids have good reason to lack a sunny disposition — they all have cancer. The program is called Some of My (best) Friends Are Bald, and is conducted at Rady Children’s Hospital.
After the class at Rady Children’s, the kids seemed more relaxed; their emotional burden less transparent. Most people would readily agree that yoga can do wonders for all kids. But perhaps you’ve heard about the conflict that’s made national headlines and beyond, concerning the Encinitas Unified School District’s yoga program, part of the P.E. curriculum in its nine schools that serve grades k-6. What has not been recognized, though, is that there is already a foundation in San Diego that teaches yoga to children in schools and has been doing so for the last five years, including the kids at Rady Children’s.
The Sean O’Shea Foundation (SOSF) honors the memory of a namesake immensely popular yoga teacher who lived in Encinitas and owned a La Jolla yoga studio, Four Seasons. The class at Rady Children’s coincided, almost to the day, with the sixth anniversary of the passing of Sean O’Shea, who was killed instantly in a freak freeway accident.
For several years until his untimely death at age 32, Sean volunteered his time, teaching yoga to low-income, at-risk youth. After his passing, Gloria O’Shea, Sean’s mother, started the foundation in his memory. Since its inception, the foundation has introduced not only yoga, but also healthy nutrition and conscious living, to over 6,500 kids in over 70 schools throughout San Diego County.
Last year, the Sean O’Shea Foundation initiated its first pilot program in Los Angeles County. “I’m very proud to continue my son’s legacy that he embarked upon over ten years ago,” says Gloria, observing the SOMFAB class. Gloria insists that the media’s focus on yoga in schools should be centered not on controversy, but on yoga’s efficacy in improving concentration and reducing stress.
“I have personally seen children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] show remarkable improvement when participating in our yoga classes. Teaching kids self-discipline through mindfulness and yoga increases concentration and the ability to better focus, allowing the students to carry that over into their studies and academics,” says Gloria.
Frank Juarez, a probation officer and after-school director for Torch Middle School, in the heart of Los Angeles’ gang epicenter, reported to Gloria that over 85 percent of the kids on his case load who participated in the SOSF yoga program had improved their GPA. There was also a significant decrease in student misbehavior referrals amongst those who took the yoga curriculum.
“I was fortunate enough to see the miraculous emotional control of 28 teens representing four violent rival gangs participating in our yoga program at a local court-appointed juvenile high school,” says Gloria. “There they were, all practicing yoga together peacefully and lying in their rest pose. Their probation officer whispered to me, ‘This is incredible.’”
Though Gloria would like yoga offered in schools throughout the country, she acknowledges that the current local controversy may cause some districts to second-guess the option of including yoga in the P.E. curriculum.
But Gloria points to some of the studies that have validated yoga’s stress reduction effects on children. One of the studies, completed by the Program Evaluation & Research Collaborative, concluded that the implementation of yoga programs in schools produces many positive outcomes and statistically significant findings, such as improvements in self-esteem, behavioral and physical health, as well as academic.
After the SOMFAB yoga class at Rady Children’s Hospital, Jeanie Spies, who coordinates the integrative medicine program for the hospital’s oncology department, said, “The Sean O’Shea Foundation yoga program has added another key healing modality to our integrative therapies for children with cancer. It takes more than medicine to cure cancer and for our survivors to thrive after treatment and lead long and healthy lives.”
The foundation operates on a shoestring budget paying only a select group of teachers, and relies mostly on donations and fundraising. (760.453.9924, www.seanasheafoundation.org) JUDD HANDLER