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Yoga in the Schools Symposium: Reflections of a Yoga 4 Classrooms Trainer

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The first Yoga in the Schools Symposium
was convened on April 23-25 at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, Lenox, MA.  The Symposium was an opportunity to be together with others who are working to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to children and teachers in the pre-k-grade12 schools, including:

•    Pre-K-12 Teachers, who are integrating yoga practices into their daily classroom routines
•    Yoga Practitioners, who are teaching yoga to children
•    Developers of yoga programs for children and yoga programs for the classroom
•    Principals and Superintendents, who are integrating yoga practices into their school and /or district curriculum

•    University Professors, who are conducting research studies focused on the questions of: What are the outcomes of integrating yoga and mindfulness practices into the classrooms in public, private and charter schools?  In other words, what are the benefits for children and youth (and for teachers)? What are the best practices/approaches for bringing yoga practices into the pre-k-12 classrooms, as well, for integrating the practices into the school culture?

The first morning’s small group focus questions were: What is your aim regarding yoga in the schools? What are the guiding principles that shape your work? What are the most important guiding principles the group should take away?

On the first afternoon there was a Research Panel. The panel included Researchers from Western Illinois University, University of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education, John Hopkins University School of Public Health, Research Triangle Institute International, University of Virginia’s School of Education, and Sat Bir Khalsa, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School. (Sat Bir Khalsa, Ph.D. and Bethany Butzer, Ph.D. collaborated with Lisa Flynn and the Yoga 4 Classrooms team to complete the Yoga 4 Classrooms pilot research study: Effects of a Classroom-Based Yoga Intervention on Cortisol and Perceived Behavior in Second- and Third- Grade Students.)

Mark Greenberg, Pennsylvania State University, moderated the panel. Mark and Tish Jennings, University of Virginia are conducting the CALM (Comprehensive Approach to Learning Mindfulness Practices) pilot study. Mark and Tish are testing whether a short daily intervention involving yoga, somatic breathing, intention-setting and caring practices results in reduced psychological and physiological symptoms related to stress and burnout among school teachers.

Andrea Hyde, Professor at Western Illinois University has been conducting qualitative research.  Both quantitative and qualitative research approaches are critically important to contributing to the development of evidence-based yoga practices. Qualitative research is focused on the narrative— listening to the stories of the research participants— and noticing the patterns and themes in the stories to form hypotheses that can be applied and potentially generalized to a broader population. Andrea shared the importance of conducting qualitative research that works towards honoring and being informed by the data from teachers’ stories. To hear the essence of each story that can inform the practices we are teaching children and youth, and the essence of each story that can inform the way school yoga programs are framed and developed.

Andrea’s thinking brought to my mind Lisa Flynn’s story of how she developed the Childlight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms programs. As well, it brought to mind Susan Kaiser Greenland’s story of how she began developing mindfulness practices for children.  To paraphrase from Susan’s book, The Mindful Child—How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder and More Compassionate, Susan began developing mindfulness for kids on a day when she was watching her own child and his friend lose their ability to be calm. She took a snow globe down from a bookshelf and began winding up the music box at its base. She shook the snow globe, put it down on a table, put her hand on her abdomen, and asked her son and his friend to put their hands on their tummies. Together they felt their breaths move up and down as they watched the snow settle in the globe. When the snow settled to the bottom, she shook it again. As they watched the water in the globe gradually clear, they felt themselves breathing. After a short while, the boys’ breathing had slowed; their bodies had relaxed and calmed. Then they could talk about what had upset them…Susan is the founder of the “Inner Kids” program affiliated with the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA.  
On the afternoon of the second day there was a School Leader panel. The panel included: Tracy Affonso, Newton Public School System teacher and Yoga 4 Classrooms Licensed Trainer, Timothy Baird, Superintendent, Encinitas (California) Union School District, Scott Himelstein, Director, Center for Education Policy and Law at University of San Diego and former deputy secretary of education for the State of California, Deborah Hoffman, Principal, Lincoln Elementary, Madison, Wisconsin School, and Alan Johnson, Superintendent, Woodland Hills School District, Pittsburgh, PA

Tish Jennings, Associate Professor at the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia, moderated the panel. Tish, Mark Greenberg, Richard Brown and Christa Turksma developed the CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Educators) for teachers program. Tish is a former Montessori early childhood teacher.

It was a comprehensive discussion that brought together stories of the strategies and approaches of school leaders who have developed and integrated yoga programs into their schools. Given that Yoga 4 Classrooms Trainer, Tracy Affonso, was representing direct service in the classroom, I thought her stories were particularly grounding. She shared stories of how yoga practices have effected her children’s ability to self-regulate, to focus, to plan and to problem solve. She shared how integrating the practices of yoga into her classroom community have affected both her ability to teach and her children's ability to learn. Her stories related how incorporating yoga into the daily life of her classroom has effected the children’s relationships with each other and her relationship with the children.

In closing, I would like to summarize the threads of discussion from the symposium that noted the importance of:

•    Defining yoga: creating a common description of the components and the intentions of the practices being offered in the secular school setting, for research, implementation, and sustainability purposes.
•    Honoring /respecting the authority of teachers’ voices as they share stories of their experiences and their students’ experience.

•    Seeing yoga, mindfulness practices, contemplative practices, and social emotional learning (SEL) through a lens of their similarities, rather than through a lens of their distinctions or differences, i.e. as approaches for supporting the growth and development of the whole child rooted in the mind-body connection.  

•    Seeing yoga, contemplative practices and SEL* curricula as approaches and/or teaching strategies, which can contribute to creating the conditions that can foster a culture of well being for all children and youth. In addition, as approaches that can promote a school culture that supports teacher self care.

•    Bringing this work to pre-service student teachers.

Esther Brandon, M.S.Ed
Yoga 4 Classrooms Trainer

* The Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (C.A.S.E.L), has developed SEL competencies that are available on the C.A.S.E.L. website.

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