Taking Yoga to School

Joan Nichols has been teaching yoga in school settings in Rochester, New York, since 2004, and currently works Monday through Friday all school-year long, bringing yoga to students as an alternative PE class. Whether the school is urban or suburban, private, charter or public, the students that Joan works with inevitably come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Wilson Magnet High School, a diverse public high school in the Rochester City School District (RCSD) where Joan spends most of her time teaching, is no different. The majority of Wilson’s student population could be considered at-risk for trauma, which is unsurprising in Rochester, where 52.5% of youth under the age of 18 live in poverty, and 80% of students in the RCSD are eligible for free lunch (Metro Council for Teen Potential).

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What does this mean for the classroom?

While some of Joan’s students may only need to cope with everyday stress of school, family and friends, many more of the children and teens that Joan teaches may be working through some level of personal trauma and even PTSD. According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered to RCSD high school students:

  • 24% of students said they had lived with someone who was an alcoholic, problem drinker, problem gambler, or who took drugs to get high.
  • 20% lived with someone was was depressed, mentally ill or suicidal.
  • 33% had witnessed someone get shot, stabbed or beaten in their neighborhood

Without being able to know exactly what individual students are going through at home, Joan has been able to create safe spaces to slow down, relieve stress, and reflect. Whether playing yoga games, sweating it out with sun salutations, or taking time out for rest and relaxation, Joan has able to adapt her classes to meet all of her students needs. And with her background in trauma-informed yoga, she approaches her teaching and behavioral management from a place of understanding and mutual respect, meeting students where they are and engaging in healthy, positive relationships.

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Witnessing Growth

That doesn’t mean that the teaching doesn’t come without it’s struggles. “Some kid and teens are really excited about class,” Joan notes, while other students, particularly in grades 6-9, tend to come with a little more resistance and attitude. For Joan it’s been a process, and over time, she has been able to keenly observe just how impactful the practice can be, not just in the attitudes and moods of her student, but in how they have developed ownership over their moods and attitudes. “The yoga addresses the stresses that are present in everyone’s lives, and it gives them some tools to manage the stress better,” says Joan. “At the same time, I’ve noticed a deeper self-reflection of ‘who and how they’re being,’ and creating change from there.” As students foster greater self-awareness, they are better able to navigate the ups and downs of their emotions, and of their world at large.

Even when the change is slow, the impact is huge.

“Everything from better self-behavior management, to better stress management, to increased awareness in social situations, to better focus.” Getting into the classrooms more often and getting more opportunities to work with students has allowed Joan to see growth more quickly and she hopes that soon, every student and teacher at Wilson will have the opportunity to get involved. As for the future, Joan “would love to see yoga being offered as an alternative PE class to all the students, as an afterschool ‘self-care’ program for both teachers and students, and as a yoga club” to draw even greater community involvement.

With so many students, teachers, and parents in the Rochester community in need of the work, the potential for growth seems unlimited.

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