Creating Calm: Yoga in District Schools

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Students in Ms. LaShone's yoga class at Maury Elementary. Photo: Courtesy Polite Piggy's

When LaShone Wilson was a child, her mother suffered from heroin addiction. “What made her feel better was her reaching outward to take that drug, and it wreaked havoc on our family,” Wilson said. “So I would ask myself, even as a little girl: “What can I do to feel better without me reaching out to anything external? Is there anything that I have internal?”

Decades later, she said, she found it within her when she took up the practice of yoga.

Now, Wilson has made it her life’s work to give District children that gift. For the past 15 years she’s been teaching yoga and mindfulness in DC Public Schools (DCPS). She has 200 hours of training in children’s yoga on top of her Vikram yoga training for adults. “Having the ability to self-regulate and then being able to share it with children fulfills me more than I could ever explain,” Wilson said. “I wish I had been able to do that when I was younger.”

One of the goals of yoga is to create a better connection between mind and body, helping people to feel greater control of each. This connection improves physical and social health, helping practitioners to be happy with themselves and to make others happy.

Some District schools have added yoga to after-school programming. Others have made it a class in itself, a central tenet of wellness practices.

Cultivating Calm

Academic research from the University of Kansas has demonstrated that yoga can benefit children in multiple ways. In addition to physical fitness and mind-body awareness, studies have shown that yoga improves attention and memory, and helps children cope with stress, a key to academic success. It also helps children self-regulate, helping with anxiety and behavioral health, concerns experienced by many children in the District and exacerbated by the pandemic.

In 2015, DC Public Schools Arts created a program to help teachers create calm through the arts, including through yoga.

Mary Lambert is Director of the DCPS Arts Program (www.artsdcps.com), which creates programming and professional development around the arts in District schools. DCPS Arts offers teachers the Cultivating Compassion in Classrooms fellowship, run by art therapist Lindsey Vance.

The eight-session program provides training around trauma-informed education and self-regulation skills for students and teachers, including the merits of using yoga in the classroom.

Lambert said she has seen teachers use those skills. Pre-K students rarely sit still, so early childhood educators need a lot of different ways to teach one theme. For instance, teachers use the two-person “seesaw” pose to teach about friendship and cooperation.

One teacher made a wall of pockets on one wall of the “calm down” corner of her classroom, a space with carpets and comfortable seating. Each pocket was labelled with a desired outcome and contained a card with instructions for a
yoga pose.

If a student feels tired and sluggish, they can pick a card marked “energizing” and do the yoga pose that is diagramed on the card. Conversely, if students feel too energized and jittery, they can pick a pose marked “calming.” The teacher told Lambert that the yoga poses “empower the students to self-identify what they need and then create it for themselves.”

Self-Regulation

Some schools have embraced yoga as part of their central tenant of wellness, teaching it as a specials class alongside art and music. The River School (4880 Georgia Ave. NW) incorporates yoga as part of the Mind and Body pillar of their educational approach. Experts say the principles of yoga are the same for children and adults, with slight variations in posture. “Our students learn to feel their breathing, pay attention to how they’re feeling, self-regulate, and be mindful of others,“ The River School says on their website.

Three years ago, Carolyn “C.J.” Hunter was a trained yoga instructor as well as the English language teacher at Kimball Elementary School (3375 Minnesota Ave. NE) when Principal Eric Dabney asked her if she could create a social emotional learning program based in yoga. He knew Hunter had traveled to India about five years prior to be certified as a yoga teacher.

Today, Hunter is the yoga and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) teacher at Kimball. Kimball students in pre-K3 through grade 5 spend about an hour a week with Hunter, practicing yoga and learning how to calm their minds and bodies. “I always wanted to combine my life’s work with my passion,” Hunter said.

Yoga is not just about flexibility. Hunter says it is very important for children, especially young children, to start identifying and managing their emotions. “There are so many other mental and physical benefits that come along with yoga that I could get into, but for me teaching in a school in Ward 7, I think that it’s super beneficial for students who may not have access and exposure to something like yoga outside of the space. Identifying and managing emotions is really big.“

She calls her classroom the “Zen Den.” One of the first things Hunter teaches is breathing exercises. She recalls one morning, when there was a hallway altercation between two fourth-grade students. Hunter happened to be standing nearby. She began guiding one of the students in breathing exercises. The student quickly took over on his own, she said. “Within a few minutes, he had deescalated,” Hunter said. “He brought himself right back down. He self-regulated, and he went on to have a successful day.”

Carolyn “C.J.” Hunter in the “Zen Den”. Courtesy DC Public Schools

Empowering Students

While not every school offers yoga as a standalone class, many have found ways to provide instruction during after-school hours. Often, programs will work with area yoga studios to tailor yoga classes to schools’ needs. For instance, the yoga studio Breathing Space (breathingspace.com) offers in-school yoga classes and creates after-school sessions to meet the needs of a particular school.

In addition to the ability to be calm and de-escalate, the studio says, yoga helps children to feel empowered.

“Truly – kids spend a lot of time feeling disempowered,” Breathing Space writes on their blog. Sometimes, what we think of as a child having a tantrum or misbehaving is really their attempt to control their circumstances, they say. “Yoga is such a great tool for children is because it provides them with tools for empowerment that will carry over into the rest of their world.”

Young children are extremely active; however, many of their physical activities are competitive. When they do yoga, kids interact with peers in a social but non-competitive environment. “This can enhance their social skills and build a sense of community,” the studio says.

Instructors teach yoga through stories and music. In her DCPS classes, Hot Yoga Capitol Hill instructor LaShone Wilson dresses up as characters to act out feelings and help children deal with them. She will name muscles as children stretch them, helping them to get more familiar with their bodies.

Wilson came to her DC school through a chance meeting about 12 years ago with Polite Piggys’ founder, Vanessa Duckett. Duckett employed Wilson to teach yoga through Polite Piggys (politepiggys.com), an after-school and camps program based in DCPS elementary schools; she still does so today.

Since then, Wilson has taught yoga and mindfulness to kids in schools from Amidon Bowen Elementary to Friendship PCS, Miner Elementary and Wilson High School. That’s in addition to her work as manager and primary instructor at Hot Yoga Capitol Hill (401 H St. NE), where she also created a summer yoga camp for kids.

Superpower

Like Hunter, Wilson emphasizes breathing exercises. For her, the key is for children to feel safe and like they are not being judged.

“The first set of safety is on the inside of you,” she says she tells them, “And Ms. LaShone wants to help you to feel safe.”

Wilson frames the ability to identify and control emotions as using their new “superpower.”

Ms. LaShone with her class. Courtesy: Polite Piggy’s.

“Once they realize that this works for them, they integrate it —without even knowing it—into their personalities. But it’s not something that you tell them to do. You just keep working with them on how they feel. And when a person feels better, they keep reaching for that same thing to help them feel better,” said Wilson. Once they have a balanced relationship with themselves, she says, they can extend that to relationships with others.

Wilson has also used yoga to directly assist with teaching, creating the “Reading is Yogamental” program. Students just at the tipping point of learning to read, or who reached that point during COVID, meet weekly. “We do yoga, sometimes we color —but there’s always a book,” she said.

Titles are focused on social emotional themes, like kindness or feelings. Together, they read the book, with Wilson beginning and then inviting others to read aloud. Initially, only a few will volunteer; as the weeks pass, however, the rest of the class increasingly raises their hands, Wilson said. “The more they trust that this isn’t a right or wrong environment, they start reading. It’s beautiful to watch.”

Pairing yoga with academic challenges makes sense, Kimba Hunter said, because yoga also helps children learn resilience and confidence through a growth mindset. “We always say, I can’t do this ‘yet’,” she said.

Students sometimes find yoga poses hard to do at the outset. But with weekly practice, they get there —they see that they can reach goals. That confidence translates from studio to classroom, Hunter said. “They realize, “Hey, if I struggled with a yoga pose and I got it, I’ll be able to understand this math or this reading,” she observed.

A Life Skill

Those who teach yoga to kids say the ability to feel and regulate mind and body leads to student success, both in the classroom, and in the rest of their lives.

Wilson says that teaching yoga and mindfulness to children is one of the most important things she’s ever done and she can see the difference it makes. She said she can see the change in mindfulness in the children from the start to the end of sessions. “And that’s the biggest reward I could ever get,” she said. “These kids are the decision makers of tomorrow, and when they make those decisions for you and me, it would really be best if they start from a place of mindfulness, she said, so, it is
an investment.”

Hunter agrees. While everybody’s journey looks different, she thinks everyone can benefit from the practice. “I think it is really important for these kids to have access and exposure,” Hunter said. “Our school model is “Excellence, every child, every day.”

And teaching, she said, is not necessarily just about academics for every child. It’s about mind and body, and so much more. “It’s for the whole child.” 

This story appears in the Winter Education Guide, available now inside the January issue of the Hill Rag.