Sitting cross-legged on my yoga mat, I looked at my eagerly awaiting students. I asked them if they knew what yoga was.
Their hands shot up quickly into the air, and I called on one of them to share: “yoga is helping you breathe, relax, and mental calmness.”
My jaw dropped at such an enlightened answer from the mouth of a fourth grader. I rarely get answers like that from the adults I teach, let alone 10-year-olds.
Yoga needs to be in the physical education curriculum of elementary schools. As part of a semester long senior project at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, I have been teaching yoga to fourth graders at two area schools.
The kids love yoga, and the reactions I’ve gotten from them prove how necessary yoga is in their lives.
Yoga is a practice as much as it is exercise. It’s a practice that demands focus, patience and discipline. Oh yeah, and breathing. Yoga is a tool that helps us navigate the ups and downs that are inevitably thrown at us, sometimes against our will.
I was nervous about the first class that I taught to a group of 18 fourth graders. The kids came running into the gym, and slid onto their mats, the decibel level in the gym suddenly sky-rocketing. I felt butterflies arise in my stomach and I began to panic about how, if at all, I would get a hold of the class.
Then I remembered, “I do yoga. I teach yoga. Just breath.”
I took a deep breath in, closed my eyes, and found my voice. After getting the kids to sit as quietly as I could, I asked if they ever felt frustrated, angry or stressed out. They all enthusiastically raised their hands. I explained that practicing yoga is a tool they can use when they feel those emotions coming on. We did a fun breathing exercise where I had them curl their tongues and breathe in through their mouths and out through their noses. Almost immediately, the room was silent, so silent that I really could have heard a pin drop. They didn’t know it, but they were tapping into one of the most important things that makes yoga a tool—their breath.
I took them through a series of grounding poses. We did downward facing dog and wagged our tails, and in tree pose, we waved the branches of our trees in the air. Each pose seemed to excite the kids more, and their attention quickly turned to chatting to their neighbors.
I decided to do an experiment. I began to focus my directions on their breath. I circled the room and told the kids I wanted to see what side of the room was focused more on their breathing. Almost immediately the room went silent again, except for the sound of deep breathing. I was amazed at how powerful the simple act of focusing on breathing could be!
At the end of the 20-minute class, I had them return their focus to their breath. The chatting that was beginning to emerge after savasana once again subsided. After class, the kids ran up to thank me, begging me to come back the next week. I was secretly jumping for joy inside knowing that the kids wanted more yoga, more tools and more attention to their breath.
I have created a series of four classes, each class centered on a theme (grounding, calming, empowering, and trust building).
One of my favorite moments was when one girl, on the following week, proclaimed that she had to find the nearest yoga studio because she loved yoga so much, and felt so relaxed afterwards. I realized in that moment, that in a combined time of 40 minutes, I had helped these kids tap into something so powerful, something that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
These yoga classes have taught these students to focus on their breath, something I doubt they, or the rest of us, were ever taught to do. On top of that, they’re learning new ways to move their bodies. I’ve seen a shift in these kids—they come into class wound up and excited, and end class more relaxed, and, well, a little quieter. Yoga is a tool, and these kids need tools to navigate the big, crazy world we live in. What I’m really teaching them is simple: just breathe.
Emily Fleming, RYT-200, is a soon to be graduate from Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Emily began to practice yoga at 16 at her mother’s urging. After practicing on and off for a few years, she began a serious yoga practice at 19 while working on a ranch in Montana. Emily has practiced yoga all over the world, from an army tent in a stranger’s backyard in Hawaii, to Helsinki, Finland, to the slums of Kenya. She has travelled to Kenya twice to work with the beautiful teachers of Africa Yoga Project who have taught her so much! Emily feels honored to be a part of an amazing worldwide kula, and feels tremendous gratitude for all who have guided and supported her on this path. Emily is moving to Chicago in June where she will spend two years teaching special education as a Teach for America corps member.
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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