Photo courtesy of Caitlin Gottschalk
Imagine a world where educators are given the opportunity to learn and implement mindfulness into their curriculums. Imagine that these educators, many of whom are facing mental and emotional burnout, are taught practical meditation and mental health tips, and then given the tools to share this knowledge with their students. Three years ago this was just a fantasy, but Yoga Foster founder Nicole Cardoza, has brought it to life.
Yoga Foster is a nonprofit that brings yoga and mindfulness to school teachers in an effort to empower both the educators and the students. So far, Nicole and her crew have brought Yoga Foster into 800 classrooms and donated over 10,000 yoga mats. They are working in 39 states, with kids of all backgrounds and ethnicities reaping the benefits of a yoga practice.
“If someone told me two years ago I’d be running a yoga nonprofit, splitting time between a farm and the city, and traveling across the country to bring yoga and mindfulness to schools, I would have laughed in their faces,” Nicole told us. “Yet after a career in the NYC tech world, I find myself here—and couldn’t be happier.”
Beginning the Journey
Nicole started Yoga Foster after her experience as a volunteer yoga instructor in elementary schools. After meeting several teachers who revealed their desire to integrate yoga into the classroom, she was inspired to work with educators to make this dream a reality. She began training teachers in her downtime, working before and after her day job and on weekends before she could transition Yoga Foster into a full-time job a couple of years later.
The benefits are highly apparent; 93 percent of teachers reported an increase in the children’s physical ability, while 88 percent saw growth in their academic achievement. On top of that, the kids have fun. Bringing yoga into a child’s life at a young age encourages confidence, concentration, and emotional balance, and can help them foster the tools to handle stressful situations.
Inspired by Yoga Foster’s incredible statistics, I reached out to a few educators who have begun implementing yoga and mindfulness into their curriculum. While these numbers revealed that there are a myriad of perks to putting yoga into schools, I couldn’t help but wonder how these teachers directly witnessed the ramifications of implementing designated time for practice. So many teachers had beautiful success stories. Elementary school drama teacher Elizabeth described how she regularly uses a counting meditation as a focus activity for her students, beginning class by having the kids close their eyes and mouths and shift focus to the breath.
“On every exhale, they count one number silently in their head,” Elizabeth said. “If they notice another thought that crosses their mind, they restart again one. I find it brings their energy way in. They’re more attentive, alert.”
Wellbeing for All
Yoga has been accused of its limited accessibility, and that only wealthier, more privileged demographics are able to take advantage of its numerous benefits. And while there is merit to that statement, Nicole and Yoga Foster are dedicated to bringing yoga into every classroom. The programs are completely free for teacher at underserved schools. Nicole also believes that the “flexibility” of the practice enables even the busiest of classrooms to take advantage of a practice. Yoga can be practiced virtually anywhere, and the only necessary materials are an open mind and a mat. (The mats, by the way, are donated.)
And it’s never too early to start. Kindergarten teachers Erin and Lauren both shared their experiences doing “ABC yoga,” which, as implied, uses the ABC’s to help convey various yoga poses to young kids. With just a few minutes designated to mindfulness and physical activity, their students were able to burn off extra energy and increase focus in the classroom. Both women were amazed; the difference on days they practiced yoga versus when they didn’t was astounding.
“I noticed my students were lacking structure and stability (they had three teachers before me), and it was leading them to act out.” Lauren said. “Immediately, I revamped our routine, adding more structured free play and incorporating daily ABC yoga. The all loved doing the yoga, and I noticed a major decrease in negative behavior.”
As for favorites? Both Erin and Lauren noted that the kids adored the balancing poses. Tree pose, or “Y for Yoga” was an especially popular choice. The brief moments of mindfulness were so successful in Erin’s class that she played instrumental lullabies and dimmed the lights for the majority of the day to create a calm, soothing environment. Instead of talking, she told me, the kids were humming as they completed their work. Even preschool teacher Paige brought yoga into the lives of her two-year-olds, implementing a pre-nap yoga session called “The Wiggle Out.” The designated time to relax gives the kids a moment to center themselves, rather than immediately lay down on their mats and be told to sleep.
Yoga Foster notices these benefits and organized a system to apply yoga into the lives of both the students and the teachers. While it’s certainly important to bring yoga into the lives of young people, it’s equally important to ensure that those teaching them are mentally healthy. I asked Elizabeth if her experience with yoga (she’s currently in the middle of teacher training) has helped make her a better teacher and she responded with an all-caps, “YES.”
“When I get frustrated or overwhelmed or I don't know how to respond to a kid's behavior, I try to take a half second to exhale, and remember an inner smile,” Elizabeth said. Some of the other teachers I spoke with brought yoga into their classrooms after having a positive personal experience with the practice. Others taught yoga in their elementary school classrooms and then started going to their own adult classes in their downtime.
Either way, the chain continues to feed itself. Discovering yoga leads to more yoga. And if we can help others discover it at a young age, well, that’s the best case scenario, isn’t it?
For more information of Yoga Foster, or to learn how you can get involved, visit their website!