“Take your passion and make it happen” are lyrics from the song Flashdance. As corny as it sounds, it’s those lyrics that continue to drive my PE curriculum forward. Fourteen years ago I introduced yoga into a cross-training class. The students embraced the activity so much they asked me to develop a class. The following year it became a semester-long elective course and a few years later became a year long elective course. My students have been involved in the development and direction of this course from the beginning, embracing the content fully. So, let me take you on a journey. If you use your imagination you’ll see it through the eyes of my students. Hopefully, you can begin to understand how my students truly connect with themselves; body, mind, and spirit.
The first quarter builds the foundation. My yoga classroom is a kaleidoscope of diversity. All are welcome and encouraged. We begin by learning the basic skills. Yoga “boot camp” teaches breathing basics, sun salutations (a standard yoga warm-up recognized world-wide), how to use a heart rate monitor, equipment care, and more. Students learn the class expectations and how to work as a team. Each class begins with baby steps, physically and mentally, intended to create a safe, efficient, and fun classroom for all.
Through the physical skills of yoga the students begin their journey of self-discovery. Students discover their strengths and recognize their weaknesses while a non-competitive atmosphere is encouraged. This might sound easy enough, but if a student believes, “I’m not strong,” “I’ve never been athletic,” “I can’t…” or is too busy comparing themselves to others it becomes hard. This is where their self-journey (or personal assignment) begins. Others will have the physical strength but lack the mental discipline or endurance to be conscious of their body positioning and breathing patterns and their journey begins here. Through reflection and goal setting the foundation is set for a uniquely personal experiential experience. I emphasize to my students that what your mind believes you can do and what your body says it can do are often two different things: The goal is to reach a level of confidence to believe you CAN do it.
As we move into second quarter a natural shift occurs within the students. Building on the physical foundation, students begin to verbally express what they’re experiencing. They start to share their outside-of-class applications of the yoga concepts they’ve earned. We call this “practical application.” The first couple of students courageous or curious enough to ask a deeper level question or share an experience open the door for discussion. First, there is a celebration for transferring the skills to a practical situation. We discuss how the classroom is our lab but the outside world is our playground. We share and learn from each other’s experiences.
For example, a number of students taking the fall SAT or ACT’s practiced deep breathing before and while instructions were being given. They report feeling calmer taking the test and feeling better about their performance. For others, the practical application might be doing 20-30 minutes of exercise the morning of the exam, sleeping 8 hours or more each night the week leading up to the exam, (previously many of our students would stay up all night to get homework done verses sleeping), or a combination. Students listen and learn from each other and are inspired by their classmates. We then bridge from general yoga positioning and body alignment to identify the specific muscles involved in developing strength and flexibility.
Students learn to describe where and what endocrine glands are involved, which nerve plexus are associated with those glands, and modifications and variations all while actively doing the poses. Practical application together with natural curiosity triggers critical thinking questions. Students make associations between the physical skills they are practicing and the mental and emotional shifts happening to them. This continues to build for the rest of the year.
During the final two weeks before exams, students are put through a series of specifically sequenced brain stimulating and immune system boosting activities and meditations. We discuss how to prepare the body, mind, and spirit for the best possible outcomes for exams. Everything from time management to sleep patterns and nutrition are discussed. By this point, each student is beginning to create his or her personal “stress management backpack.” Individually, students choose their favorite “go to” skills and techniques. We practice and develop certain skills to be used anywhere and anytime. During these two weeks, students are given daily encouragement to share their struggles, successes, and implement strategies for themselves.
Moving into the third quarter we exhale. We take time to reflect on where we have been individually and as a class, where we are now, and what direction do we want to proceed as individuals and as a class. Students are challenged to take the basic poses they’ve learned and refine them, to be more precise and go to the next level. Yoga is like an onion; there is always another layer even in the seemingly simplest poses. The group assignment ends with each group leading a full class. Using a scaffolding method, each group has by now presented the sun salutation at least three times. By September they know the names of the poses in order. October adds in safety, set up in pose, and transition cues. In November we build on cueing the anatomically correct muscles of strength and flexibility. Then in December there’s solo leading of the sun salutation for the class and an individual assignment exploring each student’s personally chosen pose.
We are always continually refining our skills. The students choose groups based on specific criteria and design their own routine using the sun salutation as the foundation and bringing in each student’s personal pose to create a smoothly flowing series. In addition, more time is allocated to Mysore (personal practice of yoga) to work on individual goals as well as personal discipline and determination. Individually, students cultivate ways of intrinsically motivating themselves leading to higher levels of empowerment and self-esteem. Once this process is embraced, the students can catapult themselves to success in whatever they pursue. The impact yoga is bringing to physical education is breaking down long standing stereotypes, and reeducating people about the power of movement not only for the body but also the mind.
We begin the school year with foundation, move into building and refining, then finally as the year comes to an end, celebrating, and exploring. Experience is key. By giving the students experiences first, we then reflect together taking the experiences and applying concepts from anatomy, physiology, and psychology. The students respond by taking ownership over their choices in class and out. Because it’s a self-discovery, they see fitness comes in all shapes and sizes. Where one student might excel, another needs encouragement.
The cueing used in yoga is very anatomical so students pick up on the anatomy and physiology of the body through everyday reinforcement. By the end of the class we are a family in every sense of the word. The best part for me is seeing the students get excited about personal health and making positive personal choices. Through yoga we incorporate it all; the students begin to embrace their personal journey of uniting their body, mind, and spirit on a daily bases. True Wellness begins.
Igniting a lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle is my goal for each student entering my classroom. Through yoga, the students learn to develop the knowledge, self-confidence, and compassion to take care of themselves, igniting the spark for a healthy, happy life. Yoga is like a never-ending onion; there is always another layer to explore. As a result every student regardless of ability level, injury, or special needs, finds, performs, and sustains a level they can perform. This challenges them yet allows for success.
Students report higher levels of self-esteem and empowerment during and after taking this course. They appreciate the level of fitness attained and set realistic healthy lifestyle goals. The students’ yogic journey results in them taking ownership over their practice, and starts them reflecting and growing as the lessons of life are used in classroom. Here are a few quotes from the students’ reflective final:
“Yoga has taught me to push myself to do what my body is capable of, even if my mind has not realized it yet.”
“Having a place inside school were we can laugh together or cry together has really helped in the process of growing up this year.”
“I have learned that at first things don’t always come easy but with hard work you can reach goals.”
“Yoga has taught me that the only view that matters of me is the one that comes from my eyes.”
“Due to the various meditations, I have noticed I am able to focus better in class, remember correct answers and ways to find them, and be able to sit and do my homework for longer than 10 minutes.”
“In the beginning of the year I was not able to clear my mind while practicing yoga, but now I have more control over my thoughts and it is easier to get rid of the negative thoughts and energy.”
“Yoga has encouraged me to exercise more outside of class”
“This class has taught me the importance of laughing at yourself and not taking yourself too seriously.”
“I realize how important it is for my mental and emotional health to have a period where I am able to actually move and work my body every day.”
“I shook off the unconfident, stressed girl and helped her find peace.”
“When I am nervous or anxious I can incorporate breathing into my everyday life to stay calm and focused.”
“I have complete control of my body. There really is no such thing as ‘I can’t.’”
“We were able to form a safe open environment, where we were not afraid of being judged on their physical fitness or intellectually.”
“I need to make time for myself and that is okay.”
This article was previously published on January 1, 2014.