'Imagine you're reaching up to pluck an Easter egg from a tree," Lidia Flisek-Boyle instructs the group of children, stretching her arm up. They follow suit. She reaches forward. "Now imagine you're stirring food in a big round cauldron... first to the right... then to the left." Apart from one or two giggles, the children are absorbed.
It sounds like a game, but Flisek-Boyle is an expert in dharma yoga, and she is introducing the children to a holistic exercise and breathing regime that calms them down, helps them concentrate and could prevent future health problems. This is just one class at a community centre in north London, where the children share a class with pensioners, but Flisek-Boyle has far bigger plans - she is a founder member of Body Awareness, a new organisation campaigning for yoga to be made part of the school curriculum.
Flisek-Boyle began teaching yoga at Gospel Oak primary school in north London in 1997. "I noticed my son's teacher was using yogic tech niques during storytime to settle the kids. I asked him if I could take a session with them, which went down very well. Within a fortnight I was taking four classes."
Flisek-Boyle was surprised at how restricted children were in their movement, with hunched shoulders, stiffness and an inability to sit upright. Children as young as four are now being given treatment for back problems normally associated with computer operators. Computer games are causing bad postural habits, a problem worsened by poorly designed school furniture which is often too small. By the age of seven, children are storing up problems for later in life.
The experts say that, with its holistic approach to health, yoga is an ideal way to improve posture, correct physical problems and reduce stress. Madonna is one of yoga's most famous practitioners, but Flisek-Boyle insists it is not just the preserve of glamorous superstars. It's a technique that should be available to all ages and abilities, from toddlers to the elderly.
Backcare (formerly the Back Pain Association) reports that in 1997-8 more than 119m working days a year were lost because of registered back problems. Taking into account those who don't claim sickness benefit, the total estimate could be nearer 180m days. As approximately £480m is spent by the NHS on services used by people with back pain, campaigners say it makes sense to fund preventative exercise such as school yoga. "After a few months of regular weekly yoga, children are much less restricted," says Flisek-Boyle.
The effects go beyond the merely physical. Eight-year-old Mukuba was a withdrawn, traumatised refugee from Zaire who hardly spoke. Within months of doing yoga at school, she started to talk. "She suddenly blossomed like a flower. She was beautiful, elegant and she really came out of herself," says Flisek-Boyle.
Teachers at the school report a marked improvement in children's ability to concentrate after they have taken yoga classes, while parents say that they are calmer at home. Even the most difficult children respond. Members of a special-needs group, for instance, could barely concentrate during their first few sessions, but now they can for at least part of the time. "Other children give it attitude, suggesting they're too cool to do yoga. They stand there defiantly with one hand on the hip. But that changes; they gradually drop the pose," says Flisek-Boyle.
After she had begun work with primary pupils, Flisek-Boyle asked osteopaths and other yoga teachers to come in to observe the children. "I talked to my GP, and got funding to set up Body Awareness." The psychosocial and physiological department at East London University is now preparing a full-scale 18-month research study into the impact of yoga on children.
The response from teachers and parents has been overwhelmingly positive, although "one mother wouldn't let her child participate because I burned incense," says Flisek-Boyle, who now keeps the sessions patchouli-free.
The emphasis is on the physical, with gentle nudgings towards a holistic understanding of mind and body. At a class funded by Kingsway College in a Camden community centre, Flisek-Boyle teaches children and pensioners together. When the children come in, they fidget and chatter excitedly. But within minutes, their eyes are closed and they're sitting with hands in their laps. "Be aware of the sound of your breath," Flisek-Boyle says gently. "Be aware of the sense of taste in your mouth." She teaches them simple breathing and stretching exercises to loosen up joints and muscles in the body.
Afterwards the children rush to the table for lunch. In between crisps, Chelsea, nine, says solemnly: "I've been doing yoga for about three months and I really like it. My mum says that before I do it I look really hard, and when I come home I'm very relaxed." Her mother, Amanda Johnston, adds: "Chelsea's very hyper - she can never sit still, she finds it hard to switch off. I've noticed that the yoga has a calming effect on her, and she really looks forward to it."
Eight-year-old Aaron, wearing a football strip and trainers, finds that yoga improves his football. "I play better. I'm less stiff," he says with a grin. Yasmine, nine, likes the relaxation best. "At school I'm very tense, and yoga is the only time I can really relax. My mum says that she might do it now."
In classes children are taught basic anatomy and encouraged to look at alignment and physical restrictions. They do detective work in pairs, noticing each other's body shape, observing and evaluating each other. Some of those who do the classes say they are teaching their siblings relaxation and visualisation techniques at home; some are so enthralled with it they practise in the playground.
Flisek-Boyle says that she could have benefited from yoga at school. Now 39, she discovered it at the age of 15, and within 10 years was beginning to teach it full time. With Body Awareness, she and co-founder Annie Calverley are aiming to "de-stigmatise" yoga, and bring it from the new age arena of smells and bells to the centre of the community. The organisation is up and running, but despite a small grant from Camden education authority it will soon need more funding (in the region of £35,000) to continue this pioneering work.
"When I was in my early 20s my father died and my brother committed suicide seven months later. I don't know what I would have done without yoga at the time - it was my rock," says Flisek-Boyle. "It's something that can strengthen the mental as well as physical, for everybody." For more information on Body Awareness 2000+, call 020-7697 8512 or email email@example.com