Practice From Dodgeball to Downward Dog Rethinking gym class can change lives. By Christy Curtis It’s no secret that lingering memories from high school, emotional wounds, and difficult decisions affect our paths toward adulthood. It’s also no secret that yoga—and living a yogi lifestyle—can help to overcome the burdens of our past. If you had been given an opportunity to explore yoga as a teen, would anything be different in your current life today? For many of us, the answer is yes, and, as it turns out, the educational system is beginning to catch on. Yoga has become a vital piece and missing link of the public school physical education curriculum. As a school educator of 15 years and certified yoga teacher, it is a true gift to impart knowledge of the yoga practice into the lives of youth. Seeds of change are sown through students’ decision-making, social behavior, cognitive awareness, and most importantly, the cultivation of self love and respect. Rethinking Gym Class In my place of work, 150 teens, ages 15–18, male and female, pile into a school gymnasium daily to participate in yoga class. Shoes are left at the door, flameless candles are scattered throughout the darkened space, instrumental music plays in the background, yoga mats are rolled out on the hard floor. Despite my attempts to make a peaceful place of refuge to learn, kids show up with immeasurable amounts of stress, anxiety, depression, immaturity, learning disabilities, and language barriers, among other challenges. They come from both ends of the social spectrum: Some with overprotective parents, others without home support; possibly on drugs or debating experimentation; being extremely naive or having grown up too quickly. It’s a cauldron of surprises and my job is to offer direction for each young, amazing body and mind on the mat to appreciate who they are with pure awareness and acceptance. We begin each class with a minimum of two minutes in silence to focus on the breath in its simplest form. Throughout the 110 minute block period, students learn the foundational alignment of postures, sparking questions and curiosity about how the body works. Layers of the Eight Limbed Path (primarily the Yamas and Niyamas) serve as themes to guide daily lessons: Non-harming, truth, nonstealing, moderation, unattachment, contentment, cleanliness, discipline, self-study, surrender. The mat becomes an extension of how yoga can be applied to the daily principles of living a happy, centered, enjoyable life. Yoga As a Cure for Angst As a teen, I was angry, misguided, and impulsive. I lacked emotional maturity, deeper cognitive thinking, and reasoning skills. Additionally, I had no clue how to properly address stress and anxiety… And this resulted in the formulation of bad habits that I am still working to overcome well into adulthood. My job is to help foster the tools necessary for students to be empowered to navigate the terrain of adolescents by addressing social, mental and physical concerns (anxiety, depression, body image, social and self responsibility) by creating the space to explore the body and mind while in a plethora of yoga postures. It is a daily practice of non-reactivity that allows for the acclimation and assimilation into the bigger picture that life has to offer. Students were prompted to respond to a class free-write question, “Is yoga a good addition to the public school curriculum?” Here’s how they answered: Yoga helps me: relax, reduces stress, increase flexibility, helps with being a better athlete, it’s fun, be better quipped to channel stress, be more awake, acquire better posture, calm my nerves, releases feelings, spread positivity to other’s and in my own life. Yoga has helped me: find a stable body weight, find peace in my body, trust myself, let go of fear, decreased feelings of sadness and anxiety, fully accept who I am, learn to love myself, create a place to think in peace, find acceptance and an inner “you” that is beautiful, build confidence, keeps me motivated, be a better student in school, and make smarter decisions. Further research from Science Daily, Huffington Post, Kirpalu, among others, have found correlation between yoga in schools and stress and anxiety reduction, mental health care, obesity reduction, and improvement of both self-esteem and academic performance. Adolescence embodies self-discovery and transition. This period of rapid change can lead to feeling misunderstood, unguided, with a lack of self-direction or worth. The human experience is a road full of peaks and valleys, but being prepared with a tool belt equipped to hammer, glue, measure, chisel, and spackle the pieces together is key to a well-adjusted adulthood. These are seeds of care and love that can be planted with yoga in a high school curriculum. Our future is in the hands of our youth. By developing the guidance for positive change from the inside out, we help inspire change makers with global consciousness and inner awareness. Yoga offers an outlet to understand the “why” of many questions that are masked by the uncertainty of teenage years. When yoga is taught in schools, we are investing into our future. You can be a part of the pilot for change, by contacting your local PTSA, school boards, and school community. — Christy Curtis is a yoga instructor and school teacher dedicated to serving as a voice to get yoga into out educational system. She is also a Wanderlust Festival teacher. For more information—or for assistance or questions about yoga in public schools, you can reach her via her website.