Courtesy of the Greenfield Daily Reporter
As Jo-Anne Beitel led the Fortville Elementary School students through yoga poses and breathing prompts, she encouraged them to notice how they felt and thanked them for their mindfulness.
At the end of their session, Beitel walked among them while they lay on their backs on their mats and softly instructed, “Find your stillness.” The lighting was dim, and calm music played in the common area lined with lockers. Eventually they arose to a seated position and exchanged the valediction, “Namaste,” with their teacher. The lights returned, students slid their socks and shoes on and were off to class for the rest of their school day.
Fortville Elementary School is wrapping up its first year offering yoga. The weekly sessions are helping students find healthy ways to react to their emotions, according to faculty members. Stacy Muffler, principal of Fortville Elementary School, said the Mt. Vernon Education Foundation and elementary school’s parent teacher organization funded the yoga program for the year. It resulted from an education foundation leader hearing Beitel speak about her experience teaching yoga in schools and its benefits for young people, Muffler continued.
“I had done a lot of reading about yoga and knew we could probably get some benefits from it for our kids,” Muffler said.
Since last October, Beitel has been coming to Fortville Elementary School from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. The program provides each student with one 40-minute yoga session per week. Beitel has been practicing yoga for about 20 years and teaching for about four. She is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Jo Pro Health. Her students range in age from around 3 to around 90, she said.
Yoga’s postures and breathing exercises spur physical benefits like strength, endurance and aerobic capacity, Beitel said, while also prompting mental advantages like mindfulness. The practice helps students replace fear-based, fight-or-flight responses with the ability to think about how they feel and respond in a healthier manner.
“We realize that if we slow down, we recollect, that there’s always a chance to start again,” Beitel said. “There’s poses all the way through our yoga class that teaches us all of these things. It’s amazing to watch the kids go through it.”
Muffler agreed. “We have a lot of students that struggle to identify what emotion they’re feeling,” she said. “As adults, we can’t expect kids to respond appropriately to emotions they don’t understand. Sometimes our lives are just so busy and go-go-go that we have to stop and feel, and this gives them that opportunity to stop and feel.”
She’s seen the benefits firsthand.
“I know hands-down we have seen the number of office referrals decline since we started this program,” Muffler said. That doesn’t mean students still don’t have their struggles, she continued, but lately they’ve often been able to work through those struggles by themselves or with a teacher’s help before an office referral is necessary.
Muffler said she’s seen yoga’s physical aspects result in benefits at the school too, adding even some of the most athletic students struggle with the practice. It teaches the valuable lesson of learning how to work through not excelling at something right away, she continued. Parents have told her that their kids are teaching them yoga at home. Muffler recalled a Facebook post over spring break showing three sisters doing yoga on a beach.
“The kids are taking this outside of school, which is what we want; we want this to be something they can have as an outlet,” she said.
Muffler said the motivation behind the program was to also offer yoga to faculty, who have been participating alongside the students. Many staff members have never done yoga before, she continued, adding their inexperience helps make them a model for their students and forge a bond. When students see that their teacher has never done yoga and is giving it their best, it encourages them that they can find their way together, she said.
Nicole Privett, a fifth-grade teacher at Fortville Elementary School, said she had taken one yoga class before this school year and admitted she wasn’t impressed.
“I don’t think I was ready or in the right frame of mind, so when they brought it to us for the kids, I was skeptical about whether or not the kids would get on board or how it would go or if it would even make a difference, but it sure has,” she said. Students have their own academic and emotional needs, Privett continued, adding yoga helps each of them meet those needs.
“Those emotional needs sometimes get in the way of learning, so when we can give them the space to practice yoga and find calm, find peace, it really translates into the classroom as well,” she said.
Stopping for 40 minutes to breathe mindfully and pose in challenging positions helps counter the demands of students’ curriculum, according to Privett. “In our class, we have a very rapid schedule throughout the day,” she said. “We go from one subject to the next, one room to the next and everything is go, go, go. But when we take the time to give that space, I feel like our work time is more focused. We can effectively use that time, and we feel more prepared.”
Taylor Bastin, one of Privett’s students, has enjoyed the weekly yoga sessions throughout the school year.
“I think it’s been helpful because through the week we get a lot of work, so it relieves the stress and it helps us relax to get work done so we’re not all stressed out about it,” she said. “And I think it makes us calmer so we’re not as rowdy, we’re not messing around as much.”
Taylor’s favorite yoga posture is crow pose, which requires a person to hold his up with his hands planted on the ground and their knees resting atop the backs of their arms.
Beitel was funded to bring yoga to Fortville Elementary through the end of this school year. She’s working on leaving the school with several yoga-inspired strategies teachers and students can use for a quick break in the classroom in the future. Muffler said the school is exploring ways to continue funding yoga there as well.
“We definitely see the benefits, but it comes at a cost, so finding a way to sustain that in the future is our next step,” she said.
By GDR Reporter Mitchell Kirk