Hoops Express Introduces Yoga!

hoops2Newburgh — Ten kids weave their way across the basketball court, between the throngs of dribbling classmates, through a door dividing the Vails Gate Elementary gym into halves. On the other side, they pull off their sneakers, grab purple foam mats and roll them out, side by side, as if circling the wagons.

“Alright, yoga friends,” croons the woman sitting cross-legged on the floor. “We’re going to do a big breath so we can calm down.”

The boys and girls giggle and inhale deeply, puffing their tummies out like ruffled songbirds.

Over the next 45 minutes, they will stretch like dogs, roll like hippos and stand rigid like trees — unconventional drills for an after-school basketball program, but just the latest venture for Hoops Express.
What began in Newburgh in 1998 as an informal inner-city youth basketball league has morphed into nonprofit life-coaching a la carte, one that blends hoops with homework tutorials, tennis, art, field trips, career building and now, yoga.

“We got like a one-stop shop,” said George Frazier, Hoops Express founder and executive director. “I’m dealing with mind, body and soul.”

At 6 foot 5 and 265 pounds, Frazier was a Newburgh Free Academy basketball star. He planned to ride a college scholarship all the way to the pros until a knee injury his freshman year landed him a one-way ticket back to Orange County’s poorest city.

He found his footing again by helping local kids find theirs, first as a basketball coach at NFA, then as a mentor working out of his living room, trying to give kids from the neighborhood open shots at a better life.

Today, Hoops Express helps more than 450 kids practice success through a variety of programs at schools and community centers. Some, like the “Hope” program, aim to turn around students with behavior problems. Others, such as the elementary yoga program, try to expose kids to something new.

This is 8-year-old Danny Wynters’ first time in the yoga class, led by instructors from the Children’s School of Yoga in Middletown. Wynters said he likes the “relaxin’ part,” when instructor Doreen Foxwell walks the kids through a musical meditation.

“Each time you hear the chime,” she said, “I’m going to tell you a different part of your body to relax.”

“Relax your arms, down to your fingers. Fly away in your minds to a place where you feel safe.” The chime sounds. “Relax your eyes and facial muscles. Feel the warmth of the sun.”

As she speaks, the squirming and snickering subsides, as if suddenly, the kids’ sugar-fueled muscles have been tranquilized. Eyelids, momentarily, feel too heavy to lift.

Studies show yoga builds children’s self-esteem, boosts test scores and helps them relax and regulate their emotions.

“Wow, I can tell some of you are flying really far away from here,” said Foxwell, “somewhere safe and calm. I want you to bring yourself back to this place if you need to, if you get stressed, if you get upset.”

To wake them, she kisses each child’s cheek with a plush butterfly.

Danny smiles bashfully, opens his eyes, rolls up the mat, shoves his sock-feet into his sneaks and scampers back to the other side of the gym, weaving through the basketball players, to wait by the door for his ride home.

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