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Stretching Their Minds

Fourth-grade teacher Pam Phillips leads her Milwood Elementary School class in yoga poses.Photo by Brian Powers.
Yoga used to improve behavior, teach life skills

An energetic third-grader at Milwood Elementary School in Kalamazoo got into some trouble with a teacher for talking during class, but rather than having to skip recess or receive a detention, the student was invited to attend a lunchtime yoga class to practice mindfulness and self-reflection.

Yoga teacher and Western Michigan University special education major Olivia Suski teaches the lunchtime classes as part of her training with Yoga Ed. The organization provides yoga training to educators, who pass the mindfulness, movement and social/emotional learning on to their students. Yoga Ed. offered a class at WMU last summer on how to incorporate yoga into elementary school classrooms. Suski and four other teachers from Kalamazoo Public Schools took the course.

Now, when Milwood’s teachers notice disruptive behaviors by students in class, they suggest the students spend their recess attending yoga class instead of playing outside. Although the idea is suggested to them, students always have a choice.

The talkative third-grader opted for yoga, where Suski provided the student with instruction on how to take a few moments to calm down with relaxing breaths whenever he is feeling hyper in class.

“(Students) really focus on being mindful and thinking about what they did and what they can do next time,” Suski says. “Rather than just punishing them, we’re teaching them strategies to use.”

Yoga for youngsters

The room where students practice yoga at Milwood is also used for indoor recess on days with inclement weather. Tables and chairs are pushed to one side, leaving a majority of the room open. When students arrive, they are instructed to unfold yoga mats. The mats were provided through a mat drive held at Down Dog Yoga Studio in September. Pamela Phillips, a Milwood fourth-grade teacher, practices yoga at Down Dog and asked for the studio’s help. The mat drive ran for two weeks and collected six mats for the Milwood program.

Uplifting music, such as “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, plays in the background as Suski and the students prepare for class. Suski says she likes to start with “animal breaths,” such as “elephant trunks, “ where students attempt to breathe deeply, extend their arms above their heads, clasp their hands together and wobble like elephants.

After animal breaths, students suggest yoga poses to practice and follow the form taught to them by Suski. She then leads them in a game in which she has the students walk around the classroom until she calls out “Stop!” and names a pose. The students go back-to-back with a partner and do that pose. Another game students enjoy, Suski says, is standing in front of their partner and mirroring each other’s poses.

Class ends with Suski turning the lights down to begin the relaxation phase of the class. Students lie on their backs or stomachs and focus on their breathing in an attempt to wind down.

Suski visits Milwood twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, to teach two 30-minute classes, one for students in kindergarten through second grade and the other for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. She started with 12 students in her classes, but because of scheduling conflicts and the option of recess, she now teaches about six or seven students, she says. She hopes that student interest will grow and more students will attend.

In the classroom

Yoga has a place in schools beyond just these lunchtime sessions, says Candis Ogilvie, a Yoga Ed instructor who trains teachers like Suski and Phillips to use yoga as a “brain break” in their classrooms.

For example, after recess Phillips’ students may choose between reading or practicing yoga poses that are designed to support mindfulness. Phillips also practices yoga with her entire class three times a week. She says she feels “the energy” of her students to determine which yoga poses to do. Sometimes she chooses the mountain game, in which students stand tall in a mountain pose with their hands stretched toward the floor. Phillips goes around and tests how strong their mountain is. She says the pose is used as a metaphor for life.

“We talk about mountains and how they get beaten on but yet they still stand and they don’t change,” Phillips says.

Phillips says she would like to see yoga practiced more in schools so children can benefit from learning self-control.

“I’ve noticed a huge difference, even with a student I didn’t think was really on board with it.,” Phillips says. “Later he did a writing piece about what he does to help with self-control, and he actually wrote that he goes to his inner adviser, which is a relaxation reading I’ve done with him. I got so excited. It is one of those things with kids that even if you don’t know it is having an effect, you’ll find out later it had a huge effect on them.”

To support its Yoga Ed program, Milwood Elementary applied for and received a $2,000 grant from the John E. Fetzer Fund, a fund housed at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, says KCF community investment officer Sandy Barry-Loken.

Although it is only a one-year grant, Barry-Loken says the program is making a long-lasting impression on students at Milwood because of the education and training teachers are receiving. She hopes that yoga will spread to other schools in the district.

“Few kids have the opportunity to be introduced to yoga and Milwood students are learning to use it as a tool to help them cope with the effects of stress in their lives and also are learning strategies to support their overall academic success,” Barry-Loken says.

Samantha May

Samantha graduated from WMU in April with a bachelor’s degree in film, video, and media studies. She enjoys being creative every second she can, whether that be with writing, photography or video recording. She found ideas for her stories through her use of social media and interactions with her classmates. She says she hopes her stories paint pictures that help readers experience the yoga room at Milwood Elementary and the creative, colorful workshop of Bambüz’s Prashant Dault.

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