IMPACT
11/12/2013 10:13 am ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

Danialle Karmanos' Work It Out Teaches Inner-City Kids Yoga And The Value Of A Deep Breath

Danialle Karmanos

DETROIT -- She may be married to one of Michigan's wealthiest businssmen, but Danialle Karmanos isn't content with simply writing checks to charities.

So when she kept reading more about childhood obesity in the newspaper every morning without seeing good solutions, Karmanos decided to come up with her own.

A resident of Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills and wife of Compuware Corporation founder and Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, she started her charity, Danialle Karmanos' Work It Out (DKWIO), in 2005. Since it became a nonprofit in 2008, she's brought the practice of yoga to 3,000 kids living in Detroit and neighboring cities like Hamtramck and Highland Park.

"We all have things that really resonate with us," Karmanos, 40, tells The Huffington Post. "For me, it's anything with kids who don't have an opportunity or are deprived of the experiences they deserve. More often, that's kids in the inner city."

A yoga lover, runner and health nut, Karmanos knew that childhood obesity can lead to diabetes, heart disease and even preventable cancers -- as well as the health care costs our society must incur if those diseases take their toll on today's children.

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"This isn't their fault," she says. "They don't know that there are healthy options. They don't how to eat healthy. They don't have a fair shot and we don't equip them with the resources to make healthy choices."

During the school year, Karmanos and DKWIO Executive Director Laura Mackiewicz bring volunteer yoga teachers in to teach the Work It Out program as part of the school day in Detroit. "We typically work with the gym teachers as a supplement to the physical ed program," Mackiewicz tells The Huffington Post. At one Detroit elementary school that can't afford to teach physical education, students in grades three to five now have an outlet for their energy and a respite from their desks.

Karmanos thought it was odd at first that the yoga practice they created for elementary school kids resonated so much with their students.

"It actually wasn't a fluke at all," she remembers realizing. "We were giving kids who live in tremendously stressful circumstances the opportunity to be still in a safe environment. A safe environment with an expert who cares about them, and giving them the tools to feel good about themselves."

They aren't just learning how to stretch. The Work It Out program encompasses healthy eating and breathing exercises to help kids learn how to deal with anger and anxiety.

An evidence-based report from the Wayne State University Center for School Health on DWKIO released this year illustrates how the program has impacted students' lives -- kids actually respond to learning about wellness and healthy living.

Because of the DKWIO program, 69 percent of students said they changed their food choices or tried new healthy foods. More than half said they now practice yoga at home. A majority of students also said they think yoga is fun and learned how to concentrate better in the classroom. Almost three-quarters of these kids said that, when life becomes stressful, they use the breathing exercises they learned to help themselves stay calm.

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It costs almost nothing to practice yoga, which means kids can keep up the exercises they've learned after each 10-week session ends. Many times, they teach their siblings, parents and friends what they learned, the study found. It's small choices that seem to resonate most with the young kids in DKWIO, like choosing a water over a soda, or eating a protein instead of a sugary snack. It teaches her students to have agency over the way they feel and what they put in their bodies.

"I'm very very mindful that a lot of kids that we're working with don't have a lot of opportunities. Many of their meals come from drive-thru restaurants," she says. "We're extremely mindful of never, ever judging their circumstances or their situation. I believe most parents -- I'd like to say all, but -- most parents are doing the best that they can."

It's a message that Karmanos lives in her own life -- one spent chasing her four boys, jogging, running her own nonprofit, and doing volunteer work, which includes serving on several charitable boards. Sometimes, that crucial hour alone to pose and meditate is needed, she says.

"Everyone understands I just need that hour to check out and quiet my mind," she says.

Karmanos recently began letting her four-year-old son try yoga with her, although she cautions that what works for her family won't necessarily translate to every home.

"Kids learn by example," she says. "Whatever your passion is, whatever your activity is, I think it's so important for kids to actively see adults taking care of themselves. Whether it's doing yoga or making healthy food choices or going for a walk, doing something to take care of your body. When kids see adults making healthy choices, they want to make healthy choices."

"Regardless of your circumstances, regardless of how you were raised or where you came from or your demographic or your gender," Karmanos says, "we all want to feel good."

yoga kids

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