Zen Kids: Going Cordless, “Just-Be Time” 

On a swath of dewy grass near Byrd Park, a group of children ages 5 to 13 stretches, twists and bends through morning yoga, aiming to synchronize their complex movements with a song.

Soccer practice, music lessons and video games seem worlds away.

"This camp is about more than sitting on a mat," says Lydia "Nitya" Griffith, the founder of Yoga with Nitya, a four-week summer camp that aims to cut the cord on youth immersed in a hypercompetitive, over-programmed, media-saturated lifestyle.

"Many don't realize that yoga is a broad philosophy," Griffith says, "which values environmentalism, for example." After yoga she takes the group on a trash-cleaning expedition through Carytown, so they can "walk the talk."

Returning to camp headquarters at Unity of Richmond, Griffith makes an announcement: "OK, now it's just-be time." One perplexed camper stands in the door, asking, "What's that?"

"Just be yourself," Griffith replies, coaxing a small nod.

Unstructured activities integrate the day's learning, says Griffith, who isn't too keen on trends in standardized education. "There's no personal relationship with knowledge," she says. And even though many campers call her a second mother, she thinks the nanny state will erode problem-solving skills.

In a recent survey, the Economist discovered that today's youth culture is the least violent in decades. While adopting pacifistic attitudes associated with Eastern cultures, the survey found, Western youth also are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Some researchers blame Facebook, with its illusion of greener pastures. Others say there's more pressure to perform.

Claudia Sachs, 11, and Bella Nathanson, 13, have been attending camp for five years. Both are on competitive dive teams, where they're challenged to beat personal records. They say camp has helped them deal with stress.

"It sounds clichéd," Nathanson says, "but I told myself positive thoughts and placed higher."

"Now I visualize what I'm going to do," Sachs adds, "instead of getting lost in the details."

Digital escapes no longer work for them, they say. Sachs recalls hours spent streaming shows through Netflix on her iPad. But she says she finds more relief by visiting with friends.

And Nathanson's trying to be more hands-off with her iPod touch. "I'd rather it play music while I make art," she says.

Around 60 percent of the youth here are multiyear attendees, Griffith estimates. "When you look at our schedule it seems heady," she says while preparing a locally sourced lunch for the campers. "Then year after year you watch their understanding develop."


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