Yoga Goes to School:
It used to be one school at a time. Now it's district by district.
From the reactions of the roughly 100 third-graders at Walnut Canyon who don’t get yoga, you would think the twenty who learn to stand on one leg were having parties, instead of practicing exercises that come from ancient India.
Every other Friday, 20 third-graders here in Moorpark in the Valley do yoga for 40 minutes (ten third-graders one week, ten the next). Their yoga teacher, Joan Kolkey, the mother of a boy in the class, leads them into a multi-purpose room and tells them to do whatever they want. Suddenly little human-shaped rockets of energy go bolting around the room, shouting, screaming and cheering. “It’s like popping a cork,” she says. Once they’ve shaken out their third-grade angst, she dings her Tibetan singing bowl, and all fall silent. The students sit in a semi-circle and chant three Oms together. Their focus and attention are Kolkey’s, and she then leads them to stretch their bodies into “gorilla” pose (uttanasana), build their concentration in garudasana (eagle pose) and even be quiet for five minutes in balasana (child’s pose), not surprisingly, their number-one request.
School teachers being led by Leah Kalish at a UTLA Teacher's Union Into to Yoga Ed's Tools for Teachers.
Photo courtesy of Yoga Ed
Whenever the other third-graders see Kolkey with her Tibetan singing bowl, they tell her they wish they could do yoga. But it’s not part of the curriculum here.
Kolkey’s ten-student class every Friday is one small part of a larger movement. Though yoga has been infiltrating into schools through informal agreements for a while, yoga has recently begun to enter public and private schools through official channels, and that means not just one class at a time, but a school at a time, and increasingly, a district at a time.
Leah Kalish, director of YogaEd, one organization bringing yoga to schools, says, “Just getting into a school a few years ago was a big deal. Now we have conversations at the district level. That’s the shift. If school districts start to go, then states will start to go.” The state of California, which supports the use of yoga as one of many physical education activities in schools, sets PE guidelines, but it is up to individual schools to determine how they will be met. Kalish, whose group is now talking about a yoga program with the entire Laguna School District, says, “The door used to be open a crack, and it’s starting to push wide open now.”
Two trends are converging to make yoga mats as much a part of the classroom as bookshelves: the popularity of yoga among adults who believe downward dog could help Johnny focus on his ABCs, and mounting pressure on educators stemming from shrinking budgets, increasing attention deficit difficulties, and skyrocketing rates of child obesity.
Subhadra Griffiths, upper right has seen great success in introducing yoga to LAUSD stedents.
Photo courtesy of Subhadra Griffiths.
A variety of school yoga programs are aiming to bring relief to educators looking for solutions to these kinds of problems, many of them based in California. US Yoga trains teachers in the San Francisco Unified School District and has developed the Yoga Science Box, a yoga curriculum that can be used as part of a PE program or broken down into small bits for daily classroom use. Yoga Ed, based in Los Angeles, has developed both a curriculum that can be incorporated into a school’s PE program and a “Tools for Teachers” workshop that instructs regular classroom teachers in yoga-derived teaching methods. Then there's Mini Yogis, which sends teachers out to teach in mainly private schools in Los Angeles. Yoga Angels, which also has a nonprofit arm, Your Kids, teaches classes in private and in public schools in LA. Indigo Yoga for Kids is an Encinitas-based training for people who want to teach children’s yoga. The Impact Foundation, a nationwide nonprofit organization has established yoga programs in Denver and Mount Vernon, NY, and has teamed up with LA kids’ yoga teacher Annie Buckley to bring yoga into schools in Los Angeles.
The classes offered by these organizations range from weekly classes that get kindergarteners to learn to make shapes with their bodies to broad course lessons that build on each other. The progressive curriculums are comprehensive, teaching alternate nostril breathing, visualization techniques and poses as difficult at bakasana (crow) and ardha chandrasana (half-moon). Others break yoga down into chunks so teachers might use one breathing exercise or a relaxation pose to get the students to calm down any time they are rowdy or unfocused.
Jasmine Senabria, one of Annie Buckley's yoga students at the Dolores Mission Alternative School, in Bow pose.
Photo by Annie Buckley
Yoga Ed, one of the biggest programs, has seen cautious interest by schools turn to full-fledged demand, once the schools get a taste of how helpful yoga can be. Its Tools for Teachers program, in which teachers learn to incorporate breathing exercises, games, yoga poses and “time-in,” which is relaxation or time for reflection, into the school day, is proving especially popular.
Last fall the Los Angeles Unified School District allowed YogaEd to teach Tools for Teachers to 60 soon-to-be teachers in its district intern program, which trains people to teach for LAUSD if they lack state teacher certification. Mary Lewis, director of the intern program, expanded the Tools for Teachers program to include 150 this spring. “Not only did it make them more relaxed as they were teaching, but it also helped interns be more relaxed even outside the classroom,” says Lewis. What she liked best about yoga was that she found that when the interns taught yoga, their students were able to concentrate better, thereby increasing overall learning time and, in turn, academic achievement. Unfortunately, she lacks the budget to have all 540 district interns take Tools for Teachers. But others are flocking to Yoga Ed. In the last six months, Yoga Ed has led 700 teachers in California through Tools for Teachers.
Utilizing the teachers that the school already has, instead of sending yoga teachers into schools, is making yoga as everyday as math. Sandy Wong-Sanchez, US Yoga’s program director and the writer of the Science Box, which can be taught as a curriculum or as smaller parts, says when they started working with schools in 1997, they knew from the start it would be better not to bring in yoga once a week, but to give it to the teachers permanently. “Many of the teachers we train, the first thing they do in the morning is a breathing exercise. Nothing else,” she says. “Then they go in to teaching subjects. Then between every subject, they do a couple of stretches. Every teacher will tell you, this is like a miracle. The students are ready to focus and they learn better.”
Although yoga in bite-sized bits works well, having an entire curriculum based on yoga is extremely effective, as demonstrated at The Accelerated School, a charter school in South Central LA that uses Yoga Ed’s yoga PE curriculum. A study conducted by California State University, Los Angeles, over the 2002-2003 academic year there illustrates yoga’s efficacy with improving student fitness, self-esteem and behavior. Since the school lacks a gym and a playground, yoga is a dominant factor in the fitness levels of students. When comparing the scores on the state physical fitness exam to other schools in the LAUSD, TAS performed significantly better on nearly all fitness tasks, and overall, outshone the rest of the district. At TAS, 89% of the fifth-grade passed the fitness exam, compared to only 66% of the district, and among the seventh-graders, 91% at TAS passed, whereas only 63% of LAUSD seventh-graders did. The study also noted significant correlations between student yoga participation and fewer discipline referrals, increases in student self-esteem after a year of yoga instruction, and even an improvement in grades.
Although schools would love to have results like these, the funding problem is one many can’t solve. They often do not even have the money for a PE curriculum. That’s the case at Crescent Heights Language Arts and Social Justice Magnet School near Pico and Fairfax, where Jen Mansfield, a fourth grade teacher who took a kids’ yoga teacher training with Annie Buckley, works. She believes that even though the school doesn’t have the budget for PE classes, her students deserve exercise, so she’s taught yoga once a week for the last six months.
Subhadra Griffiths, founder of Yoga Angels, says whenever she approaches a school, they always want her to volunteer. She takes them up on the offer, and then documents the effectiveness of the program, including videotaping the principals praising yoga. With that information, she’d apply for grants from companies and from places like the City of West Hollywood, but the programs would only last as long as the stipend would. In order to bypass all these difficulties, Subhadra is going where the money is: private schools. She plans to use the profit she earns from teaching at private schools to fund her public school classes through Your Kids, the nonprofit arm of Yoga Angels.
Because private schools are independent, it’s difficult to quantify how many have yoga, but teachers who work with both public and private schools remark on how easy it is to open the doors of private schools and unroll a yoga mat. All her classes are part of after-school programs, so they don’t need to be approved for a curriculum. Nancy Popp, the yoga and photo instructor at topnotch private school Harvard-Westlake, began teaching yoga as part of PE this past school year. All she had to do was write the curriculum for a 10-week session, which is how PE classes are divided up, and the school approved it. “It’s been incredibly successful,” she says. “Now, they’d like to offer an after-school class for students that would be 90 minutes long and a program for the faculty. It’s growing to the point where we’re probably going to need to hire more yoga teachers.”
Though all types of schools are welcoming yoga, a surprising group doesn’t think yoga should be in schools. These are some yogis who think that, because spirituality cannot be taught in schools, yoga should not be taught at all. Pamela Hollander, founder of Indigo Yoga for Kids, a kids’ teacher training program in Encinitas, says that certain elements must be present for yoga to occur, one of them being ishvara pranidhana, surrender to god or a higher power. “This element cannot be addressed in the public school system – only in private schools, yoga studios, private homes, churches and temples,” she says. “It is a key ingredient, and there is no yoga without it. The practices with it merely become exercises on the physical level and fail to achieve the depth of transformation needed for true Self-realization.”
The fourth-graders in Jen Mansfield’s class at Crescent Heights Language Arts and Social Justice Magnet might not agree with Hollander. One student there has "taken it upon himself to meditate everyday after recess,” says Mansfield.
“He says that he ‘needs to calm down and refocus.’ The funny thing is, I never specifically taught him to meditate. This is something that he developed on his own based on the yoga that I have taught him.” He may not know the term ishvara pranidhana, but he seems to be finding his own path to self-realization.
Laura Shin is a writer and yoga teacher in Los Angeles. Youcan read her work in publications like the Los Angeles Times, Organic Style and Yoga Journal.