“Anything bad that’s happened to you I want to exit it out of your heads…A teacher made me upset, breathe in, breathe out, something happened that I did not like, breathe in, breathe out, someone did something to me unfairly…Deep breaths.”
This is how yoga begins at St. Mary’s Elementary Magnet Academy in Muscogee County. At the end of school each day, students ranging from kindergarten to 5th grade gather in the library to find their center with Assistant Principal Mrs. Zara Williams. It’s one way she’s connecting with her students.
“Growing up, I had to make space for myself to be okay in classes…and I was just thinking what if somebody took the time to talk to me. Not even talk to me, just ask “how are you” how much of a difference would that make in my life,” Mrs. Williams explains.
The assistant principal has an open-door policy in her office. She believes open communication can reduce the number of consequences her students receive during their time at school. One of the biggest struggles for her students is being heard. Students are often in her office because they’re unable to break down barriers of communication, sometimes struggling to make friends. “When somebody hurts their arm or their finger, we’re all over it, we take the steps to make them feel better. But if somebody’s hurt emotionally, you can’t see it and nobody takes the time to help or walk you through as if you have a ‘boo-boo,’” she shares.
Mrs. Williams began yoga as an impromptu way to help her students cope, emotional first aid. “Just because you’re being sent to my office doesn’t mean you’re in trouble. We’re trying to change the behavior, so we don’t have to give students a consequence. We want students thinking before it happens,” which is an action called metacognition. The assistant principal began teaching students breathing exercises. She wanted to provide them space and time to refocus and re-energize. Eventually, that transformed into yoga sessions with a few students in her office. Now there is a yoga meeting every afternoon in the library.
Some yoga students experience heavy issues; homelessness, incarcerated parents, one just lost a sibling. Mrs. Williams implemented yoga as a tool to help these students self-regulate, become more in control of their mindset and effectively manage the obstacles faced in their lives. At the end of each yoga session, the students are reminded, “…the goal [of yoga] is to create a space where you were once stuck, to unveil layers of protection you built around your heart, to appreciate your body and become aware of the mind and noise it creates and to make peace with who you are. The goal is love. The goal is you.”
Although yoga is new to the school, students are already seeing results. “Sometimes I want to hit something very bad, but you can’t do that. So, I do my breathing. One of my favorite breathing techniques… we bring our hands up and swan dive, that makes me feel good. It makes me feel better,” shares 5th-grade student, Nehemiah. The yoga techniques are helping students gain better control of situations and being mindful of their reactions. When the students are asked if yoga helps them at home, the answer is an overwhelming “Yes.”
Every yoga session ends with “each one, touch one” as they go in for a group hug. “We are not perfect at all. Each one, touch one. We are not perfect in any way, but we are a work in progress…the most important part is, who?” asks Mrs. Williams, “You,” the students cheer. “Namaste.”