Teaching secular yoga to children in state sector primary schools

Sixteen years ago Francoise Freedman inspired me to try and help change the world for the better, one child at a time.  I began by teaching baby and toddler yoga and then making a film and distributing it on DVD to spread this lesser known and precious discipline to growing families. My aim was to bring all the positives of yoga to the heart of the family and to make yoga common place and accessible in the home. I then taught yoga to young children. Everyone benefited.

I recently moved to a house opposite a state nursery school and having met some of the staff, approached them about taking Birthlight’s ethos into the state school environment. The children at Brent’s College Green Nursery are singularly lucky because their school is led by the amazingly progressive and motivated head teacher Wendy Yianni. We met and discussed the benefits that yoga could bring to the children in her care and education.  She was prepared to give me a trial.

In asking me to come and be part of the school’s educational program or enrichment activities at her school the head teacher showed that she felt teaching yoga at school would not only keep the children physically fit and strong but would help them with their concentration and focus, complementing the academic work they do in their learning zones.  She welcomed me into her school. Critical in teaching yoga to children is a quiet space.  This may be key but finding a sanctuary within the noisy four walls of a working school is no mean feat. Fortunately for me, College Green Nursery is not only immaculately organised but it is a place built round the needs of children and blessed with committed staff, who fill the building with light and love.  They found me a quiet space.

The children I was teaching aged between three and six and ranged in a glorious arc from quiet and withdrawn, to keen, to athletic and wildly exuberant.   The same social range as can be found in any group of children from any demographic. Children are children.

Luckily for those of us who teach yoga, there is increasing amounts of scientific evidence to confirm the benefits of yoga and mindfulness for children. Aside from fitness, strength and discipline, the reduction in the production of the stress hormone cortisol makes the children more able to absorb information.  Without distractions, the children are able to focus.

This means that the head teacher’s decision to take on a yoga teacher has been fully vindicated, by the scientists!
(www.mtsu.edu/cala/documents/yoga_research_review.pdf sums it up nicely).

As with many transitions that are worthwhile, it wasn’t an easy journey. Indeed at times it has been a humbling one, but overall it has been a truly rewarding endeavour.

The first few months of teaching were decidedly trial and error. Not only did I have to build up trust between the children, the staff and myself but I soon realised that ‘going with the flow’ was not going to be a viable approach in the school environment.  The structure required to teach in a primary school felt contradictory to my Birthlight baby yoga parenting ethos, but I could see that this style was not going to work with a large group of young children. Somehow I needed to fuse the Birthlight ethos with great classroom management skills.  I needed to prove yoga’s worth to this school, to my pupils and to their parents. I didn’t doubt that yoga would improve their concentration and boost their learning and performance at school but I needed to prove myself to them and really be able to teach them, to make yoga part of their lives at school, and hopefully beyond.

I needed help in my approach. I didn’t know how best to teach a crowd of young children fizzing with energy so I turned to Michael Chissick, the very experienced founder of Yoga at School and took a course with him.  With Michael I observed that children will learn a great deal more if the ‘freedom in physical expression’ aspect of yoga is contained in a calm and disciplined environment. After all we are aiming to help these children in all aspects of their lives. Quiet self discipline, calm, good listening and mutual respect are not best encouraged by being monkeys in the jungle and running riot over the top of the furniture.  

So I approached the next term with Michael’s words ringing in my ears -  ‘no more Mother Theresa’.  And I worked hard to bring the children back into a freedom within discipline.  

Making the sessions fun, vibrant, entertaining, not too ‘worthy’ and yet creating the respectful and ‘still’ atmosphere in the room meant that no shouting of instructions would be necessary. 

Quiet and respectful, the children learn to observe and copy.  Their focus and concentration and earnest longing to learn is tangible in every session I teach. To help me, I have invented and borrowed games, using traditional party games like Simon Says or Grandmother’s Footsteps and giving them a yoga twist.  I now have a beginning, middle and end to every session.  I have a specific feedback part of each session and always time for mindfulness and relaxation at the end. The groups that come to me are now very engaged in the content of the session. They request their favorite games and exercises, help each other, communicate freely with one another where team work is required and I see greater ability to resolve conflict within the groups.  

The children pick things up so quickly and they love it when I let them teach me things. Their natural flexibility and strength is enviable and letting them show it off gives them increased physical self-awareness and enhances their self-esteem.  Having created an environment where every child has the opportunity to feel heard and to show me their skills, we then show their teachers what they can now do.

I am now keen to almost look beyond yoga and to use the framework of yoga to bring out the best in these children.  I believe I can equip them with communication skills, a tolerance and a determination that they didn’t have before. Crucially a part of this is the acceptance of themselves and the others they are working with and a sense of safety in the face of challenges. The physical and mental stamina they can take from yoga will equip them well for life’s true challenges as they step out of their classrooms and into the world both now and in their future.

Also I feel a responsibility to support the staff.  It is necessary to complement and support the curriculum and I often work with books currently being read in the schools.   I want the staff to witness the positive changes, the benefits of kinesthetic learning in the children and to see that the children emerge from the yoga sessions refreshed, calm and yet more enthused, more focused, energized and ready for whatever the teacher has in store for them – that the children’s yoga in some way is contributing to making the teacher’s lives easier too.

We are getting there. The children of Brent’s College Green Nursery are benefiting immeasurably. We have all learned a great deal and I hope that the results we are seeing mean that many children in state sector education will be able to benefit from secular yoga in the future. I feel privileged to be a part of this and continue to be inspired to change the world for the better, one child and one school at time.

Wendy Yianni the head teacher seems to think it is working:

"Since Alice our yoga teacher has been teaching yoga at our school I have noticed that children get what I call 'happy energy' from her lessons which increases the capacity for learning, they concentrate more, retain information and have higher capacity for learning and memory because they feel safe, calm and happy . The links Alice has woven into her lessons with phonic teaching and letter shapes has supported the schools higher standards in communication and language and literacy this year.”

Alice Morgan

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