What Schools Don't Know About Yoga

This week I learned a big lesson: while more schools are thankfully catching onto why yoga is a good curriculum addition, many schools still need to learn how to incorporate yoga so it will succeed. And as we learn in yoga, how we do something is as important as the action itself.

For several years I taught as a full-time, on staff kids’ yoga teacher in a NYC public elementary school. I taught 5-7 yoga classes a day, 5 days a week. Sometimes I had a yoga room, other times I didn't. Sometimes there were mats, other times not. Sometimes I had assistance with my classes, which numbered over 25 students - other times I was flying solo. I call these years my "bootcamp kids’ yoga teacher" years. I quickly learned what works and what doesn't when it comes to yoga in schools. On the tough days (like when I was teaching in the corner of the gym with phys-ed going on), it was my unwavering dedication to yoga and mindfulness for youth that kept me going.

This week I was offered a similar job at a NYC public school, teaching even bigger classes of 30 kid yogis at a time, averaging 6 classes a day, with no dedicated yoga space. In downtime I'd be expected to tutor and assist other programs where needed. My first response was, "Yes! I want to help!" But there were also some red flags, e.g. an over-full class schedule, no consistent controlled space (which meant pushing into academic classrooms), big classes of moving yogis as young as 5 years old with no assistant teacher. 

I pride myself in being a joyful and rigorous kids yoga teacher. I am secure in my ability to plan and execute strong yoga lessons and a curriculum. But I also see myself as a general advocate for school yoga. And as an advocate this didn't seem to add up. I was worried it would be so full of challenges it would not succeed, which could hurt the reputation of yoga in schools in the long run.

More schools are catching onto the 'whys' of yoga, which include:

  • less interpersonal conflict in schools with yoga
  • increased test scores resulting from greater focus
  • healthier and happier kids
  • an overall increase in the well-being of the school and community culture

But if we don’t address the 'hows' of including yoga in the school day, kids could miss out on these benefits, and teachers could feel unable to deliver high quality instruction.

In my opinion, here is what is needed for a yoga program to work, whether during the school day or as an after school option:

1. Space: Kids are going to be moving with both freedom and discipline to increase strength, flexibility and stamina, and need space to do that. They also need quiet to be able to focus their minds and work with others in a peaceful way for group activities. This is really hard to accomplish if you are sharing space or don’t have a space that's quiet. While yoga can certainly be done for short "yoga breaks" in academic classrooms with desks, for a full yoga class to succeed over time, it is best to have free open space for kids to stretch out with few distractions. You want kids to leave yoga ready to learn, fully, for the rest of their day.

2. A teaching assistant: In classes of over 15 students, which describes most classes in American public schools (where numbers average 25-30) it is very helpful to have a head teacher and a co-teacher or school aide. Why? Because when you're a kids’ yoga teacher you teach through modeling. During class, an assistant can give special attention to kids who need it.  A good co-teacher can turn any personal or interpersonal conflict into a teaching moment to share yoga philosophy with children. Words like satya, truthfulness, and ahimsa, kindness, have been useful in my yoga classrooms.

3. Mats:  True, it's not always necessary to have mats. In fact one of the reasons I love yoga is it requires nothing other than the body and breath. This is another reason its good for cash-strapped schools - it's relatively low-cost. That said, there are many benefits for investing in mats. Mats give little kids a visual, tangible cue to personal space. Learning to respect your space and the space of your friends is a big kid yoga lesson. Mats are soft and safe. When doing active poses, it’s good to have a soft surface in case, say, your tree pose goes timber.  

We want youth to experience positive associations with yoga right away. Though schools are often strapped for funds and space, by providing the three essentials above, so much can be gained for schools and students. I hope as the school yoga movement grows we can do what it takes to have the best yoga possible in communities and schools everywhere!

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