Updated: May 5, 2013 8:14PM
As a teacher more than a decade ago in inner-city Houston, every day I saw children come to school angry and frustrated — traumatized by violence, hungry or scared, but without the words to express their emotions and focus on learning. So I created a small oasis in my kindergarten class where students felt safe to talk about their feelings and engage in school. Inside our classroom walls, it worked. But once the students left my doors, everything would fall apart.
I knew my kids needed emotional support, structure and instruction in identifying emotions — much more than I could provide in just my classroom. When I decided to apply to start a new public school in Chicago, I knew I had to form a school that would educate children from the inside out, as emotionally and physically healthy children perform much better in school.
In 2004, alongside a dedicated team, I founded Namaste Charter School in McKinley Park. At Namaste, social-emotional health is just as important as physical health, which is something we take very seriously through our work to help students eat well and move more. If students don’t feel safe and secure, they can’t focus in class. So at Namaste, teaching pro-social behaviors and peaceful conflict resolution is parallel to academic teaching and learning.
Yoga is one of the incredible tools we use to help students focus, energize and get ready to learn. By utilizing simple poses and increasing flexibility, our kids stay active — and yoga’s emphasis on breathing ensures they are centered and energized.
It’s critical to meet students’ social and emotional needs while we teach them math and reading. Take Eliana, for example. She came to us in first grade: mad, impulsive and constantly in “fight or flight” mode, running through the hallways when she got upset. We showed Eliana we weren’t going anywhere. Every morning, I joined her for “Morning Movement,” a series of yoga poses and stretches followed by calming breathing that our community does to get ready for a day of learning. I watched Eliana learn “Peaceful People,” our curriculum that teaches children to identify their emotions and peacefully solve conflicts. Eliana learned yoga breathing and calm-down techniques like “putting on the brakes” to center herself and how to stay “safe mad,” and soon came out of her shell. She learned to trust adults, which helped her thrive. Last June, as a member of Namaste’s first graduating class, Eliana walked across our stage and I couldn’t have been prouder.
Eliana stays in touch with us as a freshman at Lane Tech, one of Chicago’s most selective high schools, and it’s clear that she utilizes many strategies she learned at Namaste. She reminds herself how to ignore distractions in high school and reduce her stress by remaining centered. Eliana has unknowingly done just what Maren and Jamie Showkeir articulate in their new book, Yoga Wisdom at Work, Finding Sanity off the Mat and on the Job. This inspiring text reminds me of the reasons these yoga-based principles are critical both in schools and in the “regular” world of work too. I hope that you’ll consider purchasing the book on Amazon.com today — the authors’ royalties will go back to Namaste Charter School to help more students like Eliana attain an excellent education.
Namaste Charter School is located at 3737 S. Paulina. Find out more at Namastecharterschool.org.