Alexandra Marzo stood straight and tall and with serious focus placed the bottom of one foot firmly against the inside of her other leg. For several seconds, she was motionless in a tree pose.
"I usually fall down," she said with a grin.
The most unusual part of this scene is Alexandra is only 5 years old and she's one of eight preschoolers — five girls, three boys — who've participated since August in a yoga class with instructor Sarah Hawks at Longleaf Learning Center.
Bella Arwood, 5, and Sophia Young, 4, focused on accomplishing the tree pose. Around the room, small bodies lost their balance and toppled in giggles.
"Sophia has been hooked on yoga since the first class," says her mom, Maria Young.
Hawks, certified Kidding Around Yoga (KAY) instructor, gathers the children each Monday afternoon for about 30 minutes of activities that include mindfulness, self control, kindness to others, cardio exercise, meditation and deep relaxation known to the children as "the secret garden."
"Preschool is my favorite age," said Hawks, who's been teaching yoga for six years. "We listen to directions, read and act out poses from a story, imitate animal movements and at the end, we relax."
Including the Monday children's class, Hawks teaches eight classes a week, including Mommy and Me at the New Port Richey Library at 10:30 on Fridays.
She emphasizes the importance of yoga in her own life. Six years ago, she was newly divorced, back home living with mom Karen Flood with a 6-month-old baby daughter, and she tipped the scales at 200 pounds. This was not a good picture for a 30-year-old. Her mom, experienced in yoga, spoke up, said she'd watch the baby and sent Hawks off to yoga class.
"She said I needed to center myself," Hawks says and admits it was exactly what she needed, recalling the empowerment she felt when she could first touch her toes.
Now toned, muscular and filled with enthusiasm, she directs the children to their mats. They scurry as she calls, "Crisscross applesauce."
They sit, hands on knees, palms up with thumb and forefinger creating an "O".
"Yoga is a-okay," they say in unison, followed by, "Peace begins with us, peace begins with us," falling from crisp voices to soft whispers.
Hawks invites activity suggestions and "Pizza" pops out rapidly. Hawks directs the kids to sit tall, spread their legs and reach far out in front, pretending to roll pizza dough. Little arms are flying in make believe, as they stretch and push toward the floor. The children suggest toppings and reach high and twist to bring down pretend sauce and sprinkles. They carefully lift their pizzas and push them into a pretend oven.
Pizza's ready! They inhale deeply and echo, "Yum-m-m-m-m-m-m-my!"
The children "swim" like dolphins and stand like herons. Fast-paced "jogging through the jungle" to music comes next, with more imitations of animal moves.
Then comes Jemma Shriver's favorite activity — "toga." Hawks dumps out dozens of colorful marble size pom-poms. The children concentrate to pick them up with their toes.
The 30 minutes fly, the children are breathing hard and Hawks directs Jemma to turn off the lights as she hands out colorful feathery scarves. The preschoolers lie on their mats, scarves over themselves.
The room is quiet.
Hawks speaks calmly, "Be very still, imagine flying away to a meadow and sitting under a tree reading a book or fishing in a lake. Butterflies come and light on your tummy." She walks quietly around the room placing a small butterfly on each child as they lay motionless.
Hawks asks the children to breathe in three times through their noses. Little tummies rise and fall in unison. Finally, they sit back in yoga position and end their session with "Yoga is a-okay. Peace begins with us …" their young voices again fading into whispers.
Focusing on kindness and being helpful seems to have worked. The children are asked to help by rolling up another's mat. They do the job quickly and offer eager smiles to their friends and to Hawk as they leave.