High School Yoga

How local schools are using mindfulness to help students relax

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Cornell and PE teacher Shelli Hill, who also teaches yoga, believe interest has grown because students find yoga to be a fun and relaxing elective that doesn’t place mental demands on them and fits the needs of those who aren’t interested in more physically active gym classes. Several of Cornell’s students said the class was recommended by friends.
“We encourage them to take it multiple times if they can fit it in their schedule,” Hill says.

Walter Johnson senior Maria Mills, who says she was “a really anxious teen,” first took yoga as a freshman to fulfill the PE requirement and help relieve the pressure of taking advanced classes and keeping up with classmates. It wasn’t a natural fit at first. “Especially the first times when we were really relaxing, I couldn’t do it. I would just walk out—it was just horrible. But after a while it really helped,” says Mills, who is taking yoga again this year.

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At McLean School in Potomac, students say practicing mindfulness is as much a part of the school day as going to class. The private school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade began incorporating mindfulness techniques and yoga into the day about four years ago as part of its comprehensive wellness program, and now offers a six-week series of mindfulness classes for parents twice a year.

By incorporating lessons ranging from “mindfulness minutes” at the start of class to morning yoga exercises and activities taught by a part-time mindfulness educator, McLean hopes to instill the practice in its students so that it becomes as natural as breathing, says Frankie Engelking, the school’s director of student and community wellness. Beginning in kindergarten, she says, students “may have as many as four or five opportunities in any given day to do some form of mindfulness exercise, whether it’s breathing, visualizing, a gratitude exercise or mindful coloring.”

One afternoon in mid-October, several middle schoolers are gathered in a school office to talk about their experiences with various aspects of mindfulness, including “heartfulness,” which means to send kind thoughts to another person. Sixth-grader Jacob Kolton says he finds that heartfulness comes in handy when another student makes fun of him or what he’s wearing. “Sometimes I put myself on their side,” he says. “Maybe they have something that’s going on at home, and that’s just a way for them to vent their feelings. So I’ll just do some mindfulness and just forgive them.”

He also appreciates when his teacher takes a few minutes for mindfulness before a test, asking students to think positive thoughts, such as focusing on something they might be looking forward to. “It’s a way to relieve all your stress—and during mindfulness, when everyone’s quiet, you can hear the quietest sounds, like the clock ticking,” he says.

At Walter Johnson, students can choose between a regular yoga class and the version designed for athletes. More girls than boys sign up for yoga, though Janice Cornell’s class for athletes is about half boys. Photo by Liz Lynch

Ellie Dadgar, a sixth-grader who plays on a school volleyball team, often practices mindfulness to get rid of nervousness before a game. “I take a mindful minute before I go onto the court,” she says. “I take a couple seconds to breathe and get all my thoughts together so I can focus and have my head in the game.”

For sixth-grader Annabella Zoslow, mindfulness helped reduce her anxiety when she and a classmate were appearing in Super Hero Support Group, a school play performed last fall. “It was extremely scary. We didn’t want to mess up and let everyone down,” she says. Before going onstage, “mindfulness was really, really helpful because I could take a few breaths and remember my line. It really helped me calm down for the play, and the play went really well.”

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Joy Dawson, who teaches yoga at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, says she hopes that practicing yoga and mindfulness will help her students gain a greater appreciation of themselves and an ability to see the bigger picture, rather than getting caught up in the minutiae and distractions of their daily lives. At first, some students think they are wasting time by doing nothing but focusing on their breathing, she says, but they soon begin to understand the concepts.

“With this mindfulness thing, sometimes people are just shocked that they are never awake and not doing anything,” she says. “So it’s such a weird feeling for them to be so present and so self-aware. That shift is really fun for me as a teacher to watch.”

On a mid-October morning, Dawson begins her first-period class by welcoming her students in a calming voice in the dimly lit basement gymnasium. The room exudes serenity as instrumental music plays in the background. “We are going to be connecting in our attempt to open our hearts and invite loving-kindness into our lives, so mats should be about 3 to 6 inches apart,” Dawson tells her students.

Yoga classes fill up quickly at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where most sections have between 30 and 35 students. Inspiring handwritten messages are taped to the walls in the room where students take yoga. Photo by Liz Lynch

The 25 students quickly place their mats in a circle, each just inches from their neighbor. At the center of the circle is a ring of LED-powered tea lights that adds a peaceful glow to the room. Dozens of inspiring messages handwritten on sheets of white paper—some with colorful drawings—are taped to the walls.  “When it rains, look for rainbows; when it’s dark, look for stars,” one reads.  

Following Dawson’s instruction, the students sit with their legs crossed, each girl forming a lotus flower by spreading her fingers and connecting her thumbs and index fingers. “Maybe we’re at the bud stage,” Dawson says, “but with light and movement, we’re going to bloom into a flower.” Later, she turns on light drum music that increases to a faster beat as the students move more quickly through several poses. As the class winds down, it’s time for savasana, and Dawson’s students immediately recline on the mats.

When class ends, the students gather their things to leave as Dawson turns off the music. Heading to second period, junior Briana Jeter explains that the early-morning class helps her throughout the school day. “It calms me down,” she says. “It’s not only a physical thing—it’s a mental thing.”

Julie Rasicot of Silver Spring is the managing editor of Bethesda Magazine’s online daily news briefing, Bethesda Beat. To comment on this story, please email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.


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