COLUMBUS, Ohio — Laughter echoed through the dimly lit room as the teens stretched their backs and, on their hands and knees, wagged their “tails.”

They let out high-pitched cat meows and bellowed deep cow moos, mimicking the animals described in a storybook. To practice balance, they propped plush Beanie Babies on their heads. To practice breathing, they laid down and watched the critters rise and fall on their stomachs and chests.

When they squatted like frogs, one boy hopped across the room.

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“Somebody get that frog back on his lily pad,” instructor Andrea Saunders joked.

The scene on a recent Thursday at Gahanna Lincoln High School wasn’t the peaceful, quiet zen for which yoga is typically known. That doesn’t mean it’s without the mind and body benefits, though.

Shayna Barrett, who uses a wheelchair, said practicing yoga has helped strengthen her core muscles enough to allow her to get in and out of the chair by herself.

“It’s showed me I can do new, hard things,” said Barrett, 19.

Success stories such as Barrett’s are why Saunders, a high school French teacher, decided to train in yoga this past year and bring the practice to Lincoln students. Twice a week, she teaches students in the school’s extended support services program, which is offered to teens ages 15 to 21 with disabilities.

Throughout central Ohio, many educators are turning to yoga and mindfulness to help kids of all ages overcome challenges, whether it’s a physical disability, a health issue, anxiety, stress or depression.

The Youth Yoga Project, a Columbus-based nonprofit group founded in 2016 that strives to make yoga more available to children, served 1,000 students and worked with 17 different schools last year, said co-founder Lauren Greenspan, a former school counselor.

In addition to leading classes, the group also trained more than 700 educators, including Saunders, to host their own sessions during the school day.

That’s important, because in addition to improving physical attributes such as strength, balance and flexibility, yoga teaches students skills they can use to calm themselves anywhere at any time, Greenspan said.

“It doesn’t require fancy equipment; all it requires is your breath and awareness,” Greenspan said. “You’re focusing your mind on the present.”

A 2015 survey by a New York University psychologist identified three dozen school-based yoga programs throughout the U.S. that reached 940 schools and more than 5,400 instructors. The research predicted that such programs would continue to grow in popularity.

In some states, the school-based programs have met resistance amid claims that they promote Eastern religions because yoga has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism.

The program is banned in Alabama.

But supporters say the poses, philosophies and breathing exercises are secular and can benefit everyone. A 2012 study published in The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, for example, indicated that middle-school students participating in yoga reported positive mood and attitude changes, increased energy and improved ability to relax, as well as better posture.

In Ohio, the practice appears to be well-received.

At Central Crossing High School in Grove City, counselors have started integrating yoga into everyday activities, such as leading students in controlled breathing and relaxation techniques before taking a high-stakes test, counselor Christa Russell said.

This year, they started hosting “morning mindfulness” yoga twice a week for all students before school. Attendance more than doubled between the first and second quarters of the school year, with 132 total students attending, along with nearly 30 staff members, in the second quarter. They’re now also offering lunch sessions weekly.

Some teachers have started giving students the option of attending a mindfulness session instead of after-school detention, Russell said.

Many end up coming back on their own.

Russell recalled one student joking that she wanted get in trouble more often, before learning she could join the yoga session any time.

“In a very stressful world, I think this is something that our kids really need,” Russell said. “They need coping strategies. The great thing about yoga and mindfulness is it can help with the things our kids are dealing with every day.”

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