High School Yoga

High School Yoga

How local schools are using mindfulness to help students relax

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Walter Johnson High School offers yoga classes throughout the school day. Photo by Liz Lynch

Sunlight streams through a wall of large windows in the dance studio at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda as about 30 students try to follow yoga teacher Janice Cornell’s lead and stretch their bodies into a warrior pose.  

“When you’re ready, stay tall and rocket to your right. Right hand down, left leg up, left arm up,” Cornell says. Barefoot and dressed in gray patterned leggings and a fitted quarter-zip pullover, she moves around the room, helping one student raise her leg and repositioning the arms of another.

Getting students to focus can be a challenge in the early-afternoon class—Cornell often raises her voice to compete with the loud music and the sound of bouncing basketballs emanating from the gymnasium next door. Still, her students are silent as they listen intently to Cornell’s instructions for the next pose.

The teens had drifted into the room minutes ago, slipping off flip-flops, sneakers and moccasins by the door and bypassing the cloth shoe caddy hanging on the wall where they’re supposed to deposit their cellphones. They grabbed mats, blankets and round yoga pillows that are stored in cubbyholes. Spreading the brightly colored mats on the floor in three long rows, the students—all girls except for one boy—chatted as they waited for class to start.

When Cornell begins speaking, the students place their phones on the floor, just inches from their mats, and stand up. Dressed in a variety of leggings, yoga pants, shorts and sweatpants, all strive to achieve the first pose, some wobbling as they lift a leg high, and then their arms.

Once the students master the pose, Cornell guides them through others before announcing it’s time for savasana—the corpse pose. Instantly, the students recline on their backs on the mats, arms at their sides with palms upward and legs bent at the knees over the pillows. Several quickly drape themselves in striped woven blankets. Nearly all close their eyes. Most remain still, and many appear to fall asleep. Savasana is her students’ favorite pose, Cornell says, because it is the one time during the school day when they can truly relax and not worry about assignments or grades.

“You’ve got a good 10 minutes. You don’t have anything to do or anywhere to be,” she tells them in a soothing voice. “Close those eyes, let them feel nice and heavy. Let everything go. Just let yourself drift off.”

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For Walter Johnson freshman Molly Benson, a 45-minute yoga class offers a respite from long days that include a heavy load of honors courses and as many as three hours of swim practice after school. “A lot of other classes are high pressure, and I worry about grades,” says Benson, who takes another of Cornell’s classes that’s designed for athletes and includes more strenuous activities. “I get to just forget about that for a while.”

Fans of yoga have long known about its potential to strengthen the body while improving emotional balance, and a small but growing body of research suggests that yoga can also help kids. A 2012 study of secondary school students who took an 11-week yoga course instead of a regular physical education (PE) class suggested that yoga has “the potential of playing a protective or preventive role in maintaining mental health,” according to results published in The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research. An increasing number of private and public schools in the area have come to recognize the benefits of teaching yoga and mindfulness meditation—the ability to be totally present in the moment by focusing on breathing—to help students remain centered and handle the stress in their lives.

Inspiring handwritten messages are taped to the walls in the room where students take yoga. Photo by Liz Lynch

Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda introduced mindfulness into its classrooms a few years ago and has since offered lessons to staff to help them relax. The practice also has begun filtering down to the high school’s feeder schools: Thomas W. Pyle Middle School offers an after-school yoga and mindfulness program sponsored by the PTSA, and Bradley Hills and Burning Tree elementary schools are introducing mindfulness practices.

Yoga teachers say the classes provide an oasis for students, a place where they can set aside, even for just a short while, the academic and social pressure to keep up with their peers.

More girls than boys often sign up for the class, though Cornell’s class for athletes is about half boys.

“Just the practice of yoga, being able to stop and think about your breath and your movement, helps hone your focus for other aspects of your life, whether it’s academics or another sport,” says Michelle Deleo, a PE teacher who has taught yoga for 15 years at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville. “You need to learn to deal with stress, and this is one safe and athletic way to do it.”

Yoga is offered as a semester-long PE elective in some Montgomery County public high schools; the class is often taught by PE teachers, and sometimes by teachers of other subjects who become certified as yoga instructors. Students are graded on their knowledge of anatomy and a progressive series of poses, and class participation can also be a factor. Some schools, including Pyle and the Bullis School in Potomac, offer yoga outside of school hours. Bullis students can take an after-school course that runs from mid-December until March and includes mindfulness lessons and activities.

Yoga instructor Joy Dawson starts her classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School by asking students to place their mats in a circle, inches from their neighbor. Photo by Liz Lynch

About 350 Wootton students are taking yoga in the current school year, Deleo says. Students often sign up for the elective during their freshman year to fulfill the PE requirement—all public high school students have to take a year of PE—and then take the class again later. Walter Johnson, which has been offering yoga for a decade or so, has seen student interest explode in recent years. The school filled two sections of the course during the first couple years, and now offers a class during every period of the school day. Nearly 280 students are taking yoga this year—another 450 were turned away because classes were filled. Students can choose between a regular class and the version designed for athletes.

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