October 13, 2013

How Yoga Can Save Our Schools. ~ Michele Bickley

More than ever, kids (and teachers) are in desperate need for yoga to be integrated into their school day.

Not to sound dramatic, but we are in a state of national crisis when it comes to education. School is a different animal than it was when we were kids. Most schools have become a robotic experience of teaching standardized test preparations. Classroom teachers have had their teaching creativity sucked out of their curriculum. And kids are stuck inside at a desk with little physical activity or room for self-expression, faced with rising violence and bullying all around them.

I don’t say this as an outsider looking in.

I was a Los Angeles public school teacher. I was a part of the “system” and saw first hand how it was nearly impossible to get anything accomplished because of all the regulations and state standards. Some of the very things that were created to help the system are actually hurting it.

After I experienced a couple years of complete exhaustion and frustration, I co-founded a company and re-entered the public school system as an independent contractor. Then, for more than a decade, I taught yoga and dance in hundreds of Los Angeles public schools and worked with thousands of students and their teachers.

With all of my hands-on involvement in schools, I can tell you that I am quite nervous about putting my own children into this system.

It is in need of a major overhaul.

It is so inundated with top down policy that perhaps, if our schools are going to change, it needs to come from the inside out. We need grassroots action and we need it now.

Even if you don’t have children, this is an issue to pay attention to because this is the future of our planet that we are talking about. The glimmer of hope is this: I saw over and over again, day after day, with thousands of students, that yoga can help our schools and kids. Let me say that again: yoga can help and it can help on multiple levels. And if you are in anyway connected to the world of yoga or know someone that is, you can be part of creating that change.

One study (Benson, H. et al, 2000) suggests that middle school students exposed to a ‘relaxation response curriculum’ had better work habits, cooperation, attendance and higher G.P.A.s than their counterparts.

Some benefits of teaching yoga in schools include:

Mental benefits

  • Increases focus and attention span by calming central nervous system
  • Cognitive functions improve (memory, learning efficiency, depth perception)
  • Aids and supports in teaching core curriculum by providing kinesthetic learning
  • Stimulates left and right brain
  • Teaches anatomy and physiology experientially

Physical benefits

  • Develops strong and healthy bodies and addresses rising obesity levels
  • Reduces stress. Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is reduced after only one class
  • Psychomotor functions improve
  • Strengthens and balances skeletal, muscular, nervous and endocrine systems

Emotional benefits

  • Increases self-esteem and confidence (no competition, process oriented)
  • Increase in self-acceptance and social adjustment
  • Decreases hostility, depression, and anxiety
  • Increases awareness of self and others
  • Encourages respect and kindness

Yoga and creative expression

  • Fosters creativity and self-expression
  • Enhances imagination
  • Encourages out-of-the-box thinking and higher level thinking skills

These are not small things! And, if this sounds too good to be true, there are studies out the wazoo and science for days to support these findings (see k-12yoga.org, Growing Minds Today, Yoga ed.com).

Before I go any further, let me dispel any notion that you may have heard about yoga bringing religion into schools. In all of my experience teaching yoga in the schools and working with many other organizations and people that do the same, there has never once been a religious aspect involved. It is very simple to focus on the physical practice, breathing techniques, and universal core values that are an extension of the existing school curriculum.

If you somehow missed the controversy about the Ashtanga based yoga program in Encinitas schools this year, what you need to know is that the judge ruled “that, even though yoga dates back to 1500 B.C. and has its roots in Hinduism, the EUSD came up with a curriculum for its 30-minute yoga classes that emphasizes respect, proper breathing and posture,” per channel ten, ABC News. So, let’s move on.

Getting practical, how do we add yoga into an already jam-packed school day? The good news is that yoga can support and enhance almost everything that is already a part of the school day.

The obvious way is in physical education (P.E.) class—if a school is lucky enough to still have a P.E. program, as many have been cut from the budget. Even if this has been the case, there is usually some point in the week when children are required to get some kind of exercise, and yoga can be done at that time in a way that emphasizes increased heart rate, building strength, flexibility, and learning balance.

One of my fifth graders said, “I used to hate P.E., but now that we are doing yoga, I can’t wait to come!” I can’t count the number of teachers that told me how much their students look forward to exercising when it is presented via yoga.

Yoga can also be part of an arts program through creative movement or dance. Lessons can start as simple as doing “Freeze Dance,” holding a yoga pose when the music stops, and making the pose dance through space when the music starts.

Yoga can also be added into the regular core curriculum as a kinesthetic learning tool. We all learn in different ways. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory offers eight ways people learn: Musical, Visual, Verbal, Logical, Bodily (Kinesthetic), Interpersonal, Intrapersonal and Naturalistic. There are always children in a class that need movement to help them understand a concept or idea. If a teacher is willing to get creative, yoga poses can be a part of teaching (math concepts, science, history).

“If a child is not learning the way you are teaching, then you must teach in the way the child learns.” ~ Dr. Rita Dunn.

I’ve seen it again and again: the child that was sadly labelled “not so bright” came alive when we used yoga and movement to teach a core subject. I understand that to some this may sound abstract (and it is) and maybe even dismissed as impossible. But it’s as simple as trying it and witnessing results.

On the daily news, we see horror stories of schools faced with rising violence, bullying, disruptions. Now imagine this: a peaceful classroom. I have seen it!

Teachers can use breath work to help students control harsh impulses and even resolve conflict.

Yoga can be used to elevate classroom management and create an optimum learning environment. Each pose and style of breathing serves a different function that can support different needs throughout the school day. Here are some suggestions for using yoga in the classroom:

Before tests try seated forward folds, twists, and side stretches with long deep breaths will calm nerves and allow students to become aware of their breath and body, cultivating relaxation and focus. Personally I used to be a nervous nellie during tests (stomach aches, anxiety), so it’s beyond rewarding to hear students say, “Yoga helped me relax so much before my test. I did great!”

In the morning do sun salutations (add an empowering poem for younger kids and make up the poem as a class!). This will awaken the senses, start the day on a positive note, and establish a sense of community within the class.

Here is an example of a ‘Sun Poem’:

1.      Mountain Pose and reach arms up “I reach for my dreams”
2.      Swan Dive “I dive into them”
3.      Half Stretch “I lead with courage”
4.      Rag Doll “I am relaxed”
5.      Reach arms out and lift torso up “I reach for the stars”
6.      Mountain, one hand on top of the other on chest “My heart and mind are open”

During core curriculum, add kinesthetic learning using Tree Pose, Eagle, Triangle, and creative movement that applies to a story or poem. Bring the learning into the body and process in a more effective way. Yoga easily connects to anything related to nature.

During transition times (after lunch and recess), use poses such as forward folds and exhaling breaths to settle energy and cool down the mind and body.

During fatigue times, energize and awaken the body and mind with heart openers and inhale-focused breathing.

One does not have to be an expert to do yoga in school; students want the same things that we do. They want to be seen. They want to be heard. They want connection. They want to feel joyful, authentic and peaceful.

Yoga provides this.

We don’t even need a special space to do the yoga: just a regular ol’ classroom, desks and chairs as props.

I’ve never felt more peace than during the teaching of a yoga class (sometimes with 60 elementary age kids at once) when we take a moment after some poses to sit down, close our eyes, listen to our breath, and see how still we can become. If I didn’t experience it, I would have never believed it was possible. A room packed with kids, all breathing together and feeling that amazing moment of calm that comes from pausing.

We all need moments to process what we have learned. Moments to decompress. Moments to choose to relax. Moments to just breathe. I’ve had classroom teachers come up to me after a class and say, “I have never seen anything like that.”

That is the yoga.

So, this call is for all yoga teachers, all yoga practitioners, and all people that know someone who loves yoga! One doesn’t need to be a yoga teacher to share yoga. Kids yoga is about making natural shapes with the body, not about technique. It’s about fun and play. Kids inherently love it. It’s an extension of their natural state of being.

When a child is taught yoga, it quickly becomes their favourite part of the day.

I don’t know of anything else that can have such a profound impact and can so easily be implemented into an existing curriculum. At the very basic level, when a student learns that a deep breath makes them feel peaceful, they begin to self regulate and process the busy world around them in a healthy way.

It starts with our children. Imagine a better world.

“The yoga poses make me feel peaceful and relaxed. They help me to focus. I found my centered power.”  ~ Nick, 8 years old.


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Assist Ed: Renée Picard/Ed: Sara Crolick

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Michele Bickley