Children are often told to “focus” or “get it together”. But what tools do they have to follow these instructions?
As a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York for six years, Lani Rosen-Gallagher Rosen-Gallagher was often confronted with issues children brought from home.
“So many children had a hard time focusing. I was attempting to teach them to read and write, but realized they also needed something else,” she said. “I started using yoga to get them up during a lesson and move their bodies, breathe intentionally, and learn to self-regulate. It really helped them to focus and develop their body awareness before returning to the work,” she said.
The light clicked on. Rosen-Gallagher, a Yogi certified by the Yoga Alliance, founded Full of Joy Yoga and has since devoted herself to developing a curriculum to help teachers integrate yoga into their classrooms in the New Haven area. She conducts workshops and provides support for teachers.
“Some people aren't comfortable teaching what they may not completely understand, so in my workshops I encourage teachers to start slowly and add the simple aspects of yoga they are comfortable with,” said Rosen-Gallagher. “They pick a few breathing exercises or poses and do them over and over with the children until they're confident, then slowly add to their repertoire.”
The practice of yoga has emerged in recent years in the classroom as a positive, effective tool for young children. Teachers say they respond to the opportunity to move their bodies in a challenging but playful way–such as posing as a favorite animal–and the benefits are numerous.
Through yoga, children can develop healthy emotional coping tools and an awareness of their bodies and their environment, Rosen-Gallagher said. Perhaps most important, she said, they begin to understand what it means to be at peace.
Currently, Rosen-Gallagher is a traveling Yogi, bringing instruction to two New Haven public schools and offering family yoga classes at City Seed, New Haven’s indoor farmer’s market.
“Our classes will become more frequent as the weather gets colder. I try to offer one every other week,” she said. “The cost is by donation at the farmer's market, whatever you can do, and we often support a non-profit with the money raised. It’s nice in the winter to use the indoor space at the farmer’s market to do yoga with families. Parents get to see what their kids can do.”
The idea is catching on locally as well.
When Stonington’s Yoga By the Sea co-founder and teacher Casey Gash first offered children’s yoga with the after-school program at Mystic Middle School, she found students very responsive. Her lessons emphasize inner and outer harmony.
“One important concept I teach is that we are not any one thought,” Gash shared. “If a child has a thought that is not comfortable, I tell them it will pass. We do lots of activities together to support this idea, like making a mandala as a point of focus, or a glitter jar that when we shake it, it’s similar to how our mind can become agitated. And when the glitter settles, it’s like the way our minds settle. We focus on aspects of meditation, inner focus, and self-esteem.”
Gash said one great thing about yoga activity and body movement is how accessible it is. “Everyone can do it.”
Professional educators echo its effectiveness.
“I have always wanted to work with children and have been a teacher for six years,” said Jessica McKay, a teacher of a multi-age fourth and fifth grade class at Integrated Day Charter School in Norwich. “I am a strong believer in the power of yoga.”
McKay works with children and young adults in theater arts outside of her full-time teaching job. In both the classroom and in theater work, she incorporates mindfulness and yoga practices on a regular basis using breathing, visualization and postures for calming, stress release, control, and developing an understanding of self.
McKay has worked with students who struggle with emotional issues. Yoga and mindfulness practices have been instrumental in helping them to regain calm and stay in control under pressure, she said.
“I think it is a powerful thing to watch a child begin his or her practice and then end in a completely different state of calm,” said McKay. “Also, seeing a child bring a strategy into his or her day without prompting is so beautiful.”
McKay recalled one instance, when a child who struggled with staying in control and focusing on his work, started to become over-stimulated during a work period.
“He was beginning to lose it and I was just about to intervene when I saw him stop, close his eyes, and begin a tapping strategy on his fingertips that we had practiced the week before,” she said. “His body slowed down, he started to breathe more calmly, and when he opened his eyes, he immediately got back to work. It was remarkable.”
McKay said it is heartwarming to see yoga and mindfulness change the life of a child who struggles socially or emotionally.
“What a remarkable thing to have an outlet that is so holistically healthy and transformative at such a young age,” she reflected.
Rosen-Gallagher agreed. She leads her students after their yoga practice in this blessing¬: “There’s light inside me. There's light inside you. Namaste.” She hopes the awareness and compassion her students develop toward themselves and others during their sessions translates into the great understanding that “together we are one.”