January 6, 2011

Schoolhouse Yoga. ~ Betsy Perna

Photo Courtesy Axel Bührmann

“So, Ever, what’s a bully?”

Welcome to day one of yoga class—at my school. As a middle level, English Language Acquisition (ELA-ESL) instructor in a public school, I dedicate six classes each year to Calming Kids yoga.  For the record, I adjusted the basic Calming Kids curriculum to include language objectives, before requesting and receiving permission to use it with my students.

“A bully is someone who says, ‘Give me your lunch money and stuff like that; and when someone says that to you, say ‘Okay,’” Ever says back.

Hmmm…I’m thinking this is going to be uphill all the way. Susana thinks a bully is always mad or “causing problems for just a tiny thing.” Miguel says that bullies are people that pick on you; and Brenda sees mean people who try to “make you look stupid, when they will never leave you alone.”

My immigrant students know what bullies are. They just need a little work on dealing with them, as “peaceful warriors,” to avoid suspension. Our school sports a no tolerance policy for fisticuff-style violence. My students also need practice with positive self-talk. Like I said, this is going to be an uphill battle. Thankfully, one thing they do understand is how to communicate in positive ways, as a group, because we did Peace Circles last year!

“As I was saying, Ever, this yoga stuff is not only good for you, it’s good for the rest of us, too. If you’re content, respectful and self-disciplined, I’m a happier teacher! So, let’s talk about your relationship with yourself and others for a minute. I think you’ll start to understand why I crab so much when you walk in here, every morning, with a sucker hanging out of your mouth!”

Eventually they do understand. They still enjoy their sugar, but when I remind them of related rules they don’t complain so much. So, that’s why I picked up the ball, this challenging goal of scaffolding background knowledge, in order to teach various aspects of yoga to English language learners.

I use a six-class curriculum each fall called Calming Kids, during S.A.V.E. Time, so my students can learn about and revisit classical Ashtanga yoga. This includes its relationship to self-study, keeping fit and focused and staying calm in uncomfortable situations—such as dealing with bullies or the Colorado State Assessment Program (CSAP) testing. It’s been a great way to develop and strengthen classroom norms, too. I usually have these kids for a couple of years or more, and I find it easier, each time we work with it. As my returning students develop knowledge of the language and postures, they’re better able to build onto, or scaffold, a growing framework for learning the benefits of yoga—here in public school and, hopefully, in their daily lives.

Day Two:
“Show me how to breathe, please,” I ask as we face each other, cross-legged, in a circle. The new ones open their mouths, greedily gulping air, huffing and puffing like winded gazelles.

“Yeah, that might work for outrunning a cheetah,” I exclaim, goofing on them. “Let’s slow things down a bit,” I add. We sit straighter, interlocking our fingers under our chins; concentrating on developing our inner energy, prana, with each deep, deliberate breath.

“Now, how do you feel…whoa…one at a time, please?” and I am laughing.

“I feel light,” whispers one. The next is “better,” and finally, someone mentions feeling more calm.

“How could you use your breath to change how you feel, say, during testing?” I ask. We come up with a plan to take a “breath break,” during Colorado English Language Assessments and CSAP’s. It’s working.

The next Monday, my 6th graders want to start with Surya Namaskar, Salutation to the Sun. Some even remember most of the sequence, and most aren’t groaning during Adho Muka Svanasana, anymore. “Down Dog” isn’t getting so many laughs, either!

They have begun to welcome yoga as relaxation because, last time, they were all able to enjoy Makarasana, the Crocodile Pose. With each session we add more postures; and today, we also talk about feelings—what they are when they are bullied and what they need to be for that to stop. We enjoy role-playing and discussion for the rest of this session.

Next, it’s time to talk about how it’s going with their yoga homework—teach a family member one thing they’ve learned in class. All have a story, and several of them have to do with getting a kid brother or sister to breathe deeply before bedtime. We turn to how yoga helps keep our spirits healthy.

In public school I talk about spirit in terms of inner light, as a passion for life itself. In my opinion, there’s no place for religion in a public school setting. Inevitably, though, there is the question: “Is yoga a religion?” I always tell my students that yoga is used by a variety of faiths; but yoga, in of itself, is not a religion. I also tell them that if they have any questions or concerns, they should share them with their parents and me.

If someone doesn’t feel like participating occasionally, it’s alright. I do, however, require the nonparticipant to sit respectfully on the mat, observing until class is over. If a parent or guardian has an issue with me teaching six classes of yoga, I simply differentiate for that student by providing alternative materials and a venue for independent study.

In class number five, we review, revisit and rekindle relationships with not only the skits, in terms of dealing effectively with bullies, but with self-bullying, too. Putting themselves down, which many middle school-aged kids do from time to time, isn’t conducive to showing confidence during confrontation with a bully. We do this again, during the last class, so the kids are clear, comfortable and ready to celebrate their participation in becoming Peaceful Warriors. Specially designed dog tags and official certificates are handed out, with great pomp and circumstance, while we enjoy pot-luck treats. Each child brings their own version of a healthy treat to share and note benefits. We take “cool-pose, yoga portraits,” too.

My students wear their tags, proudly. We continue to revisit Calming Kids as needed throughout the year, to remind us of the benefits accrued from nonviolent ways, S.A.V.E. Time and yoga. So far, it all fits together for getting yoga into class—and beyond.

Click here to see a slide show of the class!


Betsy Perna is a public school teacher, in Colorado. Currently, she works with immigrant students from Mexico. She is a trained yoga instructor (RYT 500), certified to teach Calming Kids Yoga, YOGA ED K-12, BREATHE and BIKRAM styles.

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