Teaching kids how to create a safe space with yoga

Leah Rose Gallegos paced the library at Accelerated Charter Elementary School. In 15 minutes, the room would be packed with fifth graders in sneakers and school uniforms, arms raised above their heads, dutifully following their instructions to breathe, stretch, and look within.

But first it was time for some kind of consecration.

Gallegos walked around the yoga mats spread out on the floor, leaving rosemary and lavender oil drips next to the wall-pushed desks and bookshelves filled with textbooks, board games, and a series of web beetle habitats inhabited by newly hatched moths.

“It’s aromatherapy,” Gallegos explained as the scent wafted around the room. “It’s one of our tricks. When they enter, they can feel as if they are somewhere else.”

Second grade student Giselle Calderon stretches as instructed by yoga teachers Sacha Taylor and Leah Gallegos

Giselle Calderon practices a breathing exercise.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The choice of rosemary was deliberate, she said; The hardy, sun-loving herb grows throughout Los Angeles. In a later class, she will bring a sprig of the living herb for children to recognize. She will teach them how to transfer her scent to their fingertips with just a gentle touch, so they don’t have to wait until their next visit to experience that sense of calm.

That’s what her mindfulness course aims to do, she said: “The goal is to give them as many tools as possible to help themselves.”

Gallegos — who founded People’s Yoga with Lauren Quan-Madrid in East Los Angeles in 2014 — was on Accelerated Charter for the first mindfulness class of the 2022-23 school year, a monthly offering for students in transition kindergarten through sixth grade.

Gallegos and other People’s Yoga instructors teach children yoga postures, deep breathing and meditation techniques. In a world that can get scary and out of control – especially lately – the course aims to teach children how to create their own safe space.

Leah Rose Gallegos, co-founder of People's Yoga, leads a class of fifth graders.

Leah Rose Gallegos, co-founder of People’s Yoga, leads a class of fifth graders.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t tell them, ‘It’s going to make you feel good.’ I say, ‘See how you feel,'” Gallegos said. “I really want them to take back the power of their own bodies and be able to control their own emotions.”

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The stresses of the past two years have sparked a nationwide child mental health crisis that hasn’t spared Accelerated Charter, a short walk from Exposition Park and USC. The school’s 500 or so students, in transition kindergarten through sixth grade, have collectively mourned family members lost to COVID-19 and watched as parents who are essential workers risk exposure to the virus as they navigate through it Navigating the chaos, uncertainty and isolation of online school and pandemic life.

No monthly meeting alone can heal these wounds. But since mindfulness classes first began, teachers and administrators at Accelerated Charter have noticed a subtle change in the way students respond to stress and the strength of their own emotions.

“In the beginning it was like, ‘Yoga? What is that? What’s going on?’” said Nestor Alas, the school’s dean of culture. “Because they have this perception, this mentality, that yoga is like, ‘Oh, this is for other types of people. It’s not for us.’”

A year later, Alas said, “Kids use the strategies of yoga to deal with things outside of the classroom — any problem, any problem.”

Leah Gallegos, a co-founder of People's Yoga, directs Year 5 at Accelerated Charter Elementary School

Fifth graders take a mindfulness class.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this week, Alas found a kindergarten student in tears over a lost lunch box.

“What do you think we can do now?” Oh, asked.

The boy looked at him with a tear-streaked face. “Breathe in,” he replied.

Together they took three deep breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth, just as the child had learned. “I’m feeling better,” he said when they were done, then went back to finding his lunch box.

When Accelerated Charter’s South Central campus reopened fully for in-person learning for the 2021 summer program, Principal Karin Figueroa could immediately see that her students would need additional support.

COVID-19, she said, “was like a new layer of trauma” on top of what kids were already dealing with.

Leah Gallegos, a co-founder of People's Yoga, removes her mask to teach a breathing exercise

Gallegos teaches a breathing exercise.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Nationwide, pandemic-related educational disruptions have eroded years of gains in basic math and reading skills. These losses were most acute in communities of color and those with high rates of poverty.

The vast majority of Accelerated Charter students identify as Latino, and more than 90% of the school’s families were eligible for free or discounted meals before the pandemic, Figueroa said.

Figueroa hired a counselor and a social worker. She also wanted to go one step further.

“They can’t verbalize themselves with younger children [stress], but they will indicate it in different ways, be it a jab or a scream. That’s the only way they can put it,” she said. “So our job is to equip them with the words, techniques and strategies they can use to deal with their feelings.”

Second grade student Giselle Calderon stretches as instructed by yoga teachers.

Second year Giselle Calderon stretches.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

She turned to People’s Yoga. Before the pandemic, the studio offered family classes, occasional one-off workshops for elementary schools, and ongoing programs in high schools in LAUSD and elsewhere. As the slow return to personal activities began, Gallegos felt a strong urge to expand the studio’s offerings to young people.

“I felt this great urge to do something that would support children, especially at this time when it’s all crashing down on us all,” she said.

Accelerated Charter students were not alone in their struggles. An analysis of 80,000 young people worldwide found that symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled in the first year of the pandemic, with 25% of young people reporting signs of depression and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.

It’s a challenge that the US – and California in particular – was ill-prepared for.

Even before the pandemic, mental health was the leading cause of poor life outcomes among young people, according to a health advisory issued in December by the US Surgeon General.

Second grade student Stacy Hernandez-Puac stretches and relaxes as instructed by yoga teachers

Second grader Stacy Hernandez-Puac gets rid of.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

One study found that of the millions of children with treatable mental or emotional health problems, about half did not receive adequate care. California is among the five lowest states in
the relationship between school counselors and students. A 2020 statewide audit found that 97% of the state’s school districts did not employ the recommended number of mental health professionals and 25% had no such staff at all.

Faced with a yawning gap between students’ emotional and mental health needs and the available staff, many schools in California and beyond have instituted low-cost programs to build children’s resilience.

Several studies have found that regular classroom yoga classes help improve students’ anxiety and emotional regulation. By 2015, around 1,000 schools across the country had implemented some form of on-campus yoga program.

But it hasn’t been widely accepted: Alabama law banned yoga in schools through 2021, and still prohibits meditation, chanting, and the use of non-English terms in any mindfulness classroom instruction. (For example the pose known in Hindi as adho mukha svanasana must have an English nickname like “downward dog” and Namaste is off.)

Second grade students Sophia Galarza, Jasmine Saloj and Giselle Calderon stretch as instructed by yoga teachers

Students practice yoga poses.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

With children, educators say, specific poses are less important than the deep breathing and quiet attention that yoga requires. In a world faced with all sorts of unexpected challenges, instilling a sense of inner peace is invaluable.

“We wanted to equip students with techniques for self-regulating behavior and self-soothing behavior, especially in stressful situations,” Figueroa said.

Back at Accelerated Charter, the room filled with Edgar Dominguez’s fifth grade students.

“What is the definition of yoga?” Gallegos asked the class.

“To be flexible,” a girl called out.

“Only with our bodies?” Gallegos asked.

“No. Our arms, our hearts,” Matthew Rosario, 10, said from a mat at the front of the room.
Gallegos made them stand up and stretch their arms and legs as if they were climbing an invisible ladder. They practiced breathing exercises: deep inhalation through the nose, exhalation through the mouth, as if fogging a mirror.

Can you tell, ‘ujjayi Breathe?” she asked.

ujjayi Breathe,” the children answered in unison.

At the end of the class, Gallegos asked how they felt when they came here that day and how they felt afterwards. A hand shot up from the front. At the beginning of the lesson he felt exhausted, said Jabet Ibarra.

And now?

“Grateful,” said the 10-year-old self-confidently.

When the pandemic hit, Ibarra explained after class, students had “nothing — just class and work,” he said.

But now everything is better. He’s back at school. He can see his friends.

“We’re not on Zoom or home school, and we have yoga,” he said. “So I was grateful that we have something to put our minds at ease.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-30/teaching-kids-how-to-create-a-safe-space-one-downward-dog-at-a-time-how-to-save-a-life Teaching kids how to create a safe space with yoga

Alley Einstein

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