The Need to Breathe: What I Learned Teaching Yoga in High School

Written by a Boston Public Schools History Teacher

For the past two years, for 80 minutes a day, I have taught a semesterised Yoga class at the high school where I mostly teach History. My Yoga class draws males, females, freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, as well as students from every racial background and at multiple levels of English proficiency. All of my students receive free lunch, a marker in American education for low-income families and students. Many of my students have experienced trauma, either from living in poverty, escaping war-torn countries, or immigrating to the United States.These students have proven to me, time and again, that teaching Yoga in high school is not only fun, but necessary.

Our class has a pretty set schedule. Structure binds anxiety and I think it’s important for high school students to have routine. We only have one rule- no cell phones. If there’s a pose you cannot do, you are always allowed to self-regulate. Each week, we focus on one mantra. Usually, we begin the semester with “I am perfect” and conclude with “I will breathe.” Class begins by having students meditate, either sitting or laying in Savasana, for about 15 minutes. I guide them through relaxing major muscle groups, play soft music, and remind them to breathe. I also read inspirational quotes to them. We then transition to about 30 minutes of movement. Students often request to focus on certain body parts or areas. Most often it is the back because students spend all day sitting at school desks and then standing at jobs after school. Some participate more than others. It’s not a perfect system. Finally, we conclude with another 15-20 minutes of Savasana with more soft music, more inspiring quotes (teenagers love quotes!), and then it’s Namaste and dismissal.

But, let’s hear what they have to say. A recent immigrant to the United States who took my Yoga class first period wrote in her journal, “Yoga has helped me with staying relax and not lazy all the time. For example, when I didn’t do yoga or didn’t have the class I would feel so tired and not be able to concentrate.” Another student, a very shy senior, wrote, “I used to feel anxious all the time, but now, I am a little bit more relaxed and clear minded. I never thought that I could even do yoga because of my weight. I thought it was only for fit people. Now, I know I can do yoga and test my flexibility every day. Sometimes, I surprise myself with what my body can do.” Another student who experienced the loss of a family member during the semester wrote, “How yoga has helped me is it really helps me clear my thoughts. For example, when we meditate and Ms. Moran speaks and talks about the mantra for the week it makes you feel good. You feel good on the inside and out while you are relaxing and told positive things the whole yoga class.” Finally, a senior who moved to the United States last year and is still learning English wrote, “This class help me to challenge myself through poses that allowed me to know myself better and show that I could do whatever I want. Also this class help me to re-frame my thinking about myself because I learn that I’m perfect exactly as I am, I love myself for this reason. I take care of myself and indulge myself with what make me happy.”

To hear students say these things, makes me emotional. Prior to this class, no one had given them the opportunity to unplug, unwind, and sit in quiet. Being able to practice self-regulation strategies coupled with physical movement is paramount in developing healthy adolescents. I think Yoga, both movement and meditation, should be taught in all American high schools, especially low-income schools, because I have seen it make a lasting difference in the physical, mental, and emotional state of my students, which in turn, has made them better learners who are more able to concentrate and retain information in their academic classes.

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