By Holly Clay
When something transforms our life, it’s a big deal. When it’s for free, even better! “I never would have imagined that a class I took in school, just to get more gym credits, would change my life in the ways that it did. I feel very fortunate to have been introduced to yoga through the school system because it has changed my life, for free, and it has been extremely rewarding,” reflects a Gloucester High School (GHS) student.
GHS has been offering yoga as a physical education elective for four years. Inspired by his personal toe dip into yoga, high school teacher John Sperry launched the GHS program. A scholarship made yoga training possible. Sperry attended the highly respected Kripalu Center program, earning certification to teach. The training paid off and the GHS yoga offering came to surpass his wildest expectations.
“Yoga’s the most popular elective at GHS,” Sperry says. “We’re up to offering three classes a day [2016-17 academic year].” The sessions take place on the stage, in the school auditorium. The first couple years the space was dark, the ceiling needed patching, and dust caked the stage. Still the students, as many as 35 at a time, filed in one after another, happily anticipating the yoga ahead. This year a facelift has improved the physical surroundings, but the participants’ facial expressions needed no such adjustment. Receptive as always, the high schoolers melt into a yogic groove.
“Being introduced to this class was the best thing to ever happen to me,“ one student comments at the close of term. And, says one of the boys, “Yoga has been very beneficial for me… I have taken more away from this one class, than most of the other classes I find myself in as the year comes to a close.” Praise like that lets Sperry know yoga’s accomplishing something.
The high school experience is loaded with stress. Teen worries loom large and depression can follow in their wake. Yoga and mindfulness strike right at the root of agitation. The young people in Sperry’s classes point again and again to reduced anxiety and improved mood as fundamental yoga outcomes.
“I have struggled with severe anxiety for the past year of my life. I had never had anxiety prior to last year, and since taking yoga I have seen a major difference in my mental stability,” one student says.
“I have a somatoform disorder that causes me to have physical pain/symptoms when I get anxious and stressed out. Because I have trouble expressing my emotions and opening up to others, I tend to stress myself out and cause myself pain,” explains a young man. He says through yoga class sessions, “I have learned to better understand my mind and how I can prevent my self-destruction…By the end of class I feel much better than I did at the beginning of class.”
Sperry teaches coping strategies, explicitly, in the yoga classes. The kids try them on for size in class, regularly, and then adapt them for use “off the mat,” in real life.
“…It’s crazy to think that a class I have only been taking for two months has taught me better coping skills than …therapists…,” a student asserts. She continues, describing a challenge she overcame with yoga techniques. “…I started having an anxiety attack about two weeks ago in the middle of the night. I couldn’t calm down and was in full-blown panic mode for no reason. I didn’t have my medication with me, so I decided to sit on my bedroom floor and do some of the breathing techniques and stretches I learned during my yoga class. After about 15 minutes … I began to calm down…” Clearly, what she was learning in class felt relevant.
Breathing and the breath lie squarely at the center of any yoga practice. In fact, awareness of breathing patterns lies at the heart of most mindful arts and ancient meditation traditions. In westernized yoga, elongating and softening the rhythm of the breath not only help us synchronize our movements, but also ease tension. The pressure lifts.
“ I never really thought about the importance of breathing until I felt the changes that it does to your mind,” a female sophomore comments.
A junior agrees, noting an enduring effect on the nervous system. “Before I took the class I was very stressed to the point that I had to take anxiety medicine, and now I haven’t been needing to take it, at all.”
“Slow the breath, slow the mind,” goes the adage. With the down tempo, we experience a release from recurring or obsessive thoughts. Solid science backs up this ancient premise. In laboratories fMRI’s record brain waves and show a cessation of electron hyper activity. Studies on people employing breathing techniques point to reductions in heart rates. Monitors demonstrate a build-up and release of pleasant and calming endorphins like dopamine. An unperturbed state of mind aids concentration. It leaves us receptive to studying or focusing on mental tasks.
“When I think about filling my belly, bottom of my lungs, top of my lungs, and expanding my chest with air to make room for my heart, I am able to better focus,” one girl writes in a reflection piece.
It’s not only mental faculties that respond to conscious movement and breathing. Comments corroborate what science tells us about yoga’s effect on the whole body. Athletes, for example, notice a shift.
“A lot of the time during a workout I tend to breathe quickly and heavily. Yoga has a helped me learn to control my breath and pace myself better,” says one of the young people. When I control my breathing, I can focus more on the exercise I’m doing and work out better. It also helps me quiet my mind and focus on what is actually going on instead of on distracting thoughts.”
“Yoga this semester has taught me to control my body better … and clear my mind,” adds a second student, with another chiming in about sore muscles and joints. “There have been new poses, such as the frog pose, that I find really help with pain that I consistently deal with because of skateboarding. [The pose] really stretches out my hips, and I have been having problems with pain and soreness in my left hip for a few months.”
Sperry works numerous yogic and mindfulness approaches into the curriculum. He invites guest teachers and takes students on yoga studio “field trips.” Some kids report liking gentle yoga; others prefer something more energetic and taxing. One thing is clear from the responses the students are writing: the combination of movement and a concluding rest or mindful period strikes a chord.
“It was nice to incorporate quick movements for more of an ‘exercisy’ feel,” notes one o the young women. “I think that moving my body a lot helps me stretch deeper and then I can relax and feel the benefits of corpse [resting] pose more.”
Sometimes Sperry devotes an entire class period (classes range in length from about 30 minutes to almost an hour) to guided relaxation or mindfulness. That means, Sperry softly tells a story or describes a scene, while the students visualize, lying or sitting quietly on their mats.
“As for relaxation techniques,” says one male student, “I have found the beach meditation to work the best for me, says one male student. “I really connect with this technique, the sensation of being in the pool of water is very relaxing for me. …My mind felt like it had been massaged…, and my muscles felt like jelly.”
“I find that the relaxations where you tell a story work better for me because I can immerse myself in the scene and don’t get distracted,” notes another. “I also liked doing the relaxation where we focus on one part of the body at a time. It allows me to make sure I relax every muscle and I can realize when I hold tension in certain muscles. I can also focus on parts of the body I normally ignore. … Relaxations have been really helpful for me because I feel like they make me more tuned into my body and I now have techniques to quiet my mind and deal with stress,” notes another.
Sometimes the young people talk about bringing “on the mat” practices to bear on school success.
“I’m happier in class and can get work done easier without the stress,” says one senior, a boy. “… yoga took [stress] out of my body. … My grades have gone up and I’m more relaxed.”
“After partaking in the class in the morning I feel like I have earned a sense of calmness. I am then able to carry that sense of calmness and openness with me to class,” one female, a senior, comments. “This has helped me not only to focus more efficiently, but it also helps with my anxiety. I have clinical anxiety so I always have a million and one thoughts running through my head, but after finishing…I feel more at ease with myself…that short amount of time…can change the entire mood of my day. “
Another girl reflects, “…[sometimes] people talked [during yoga class], and…[they] did not even try to do the poses.. I found I was able to focus my attention on my breath and on my yoga, instead of getting bothered and distracted by others. That was a great learning experience for me. It helped me learn more self-control and concentration.” As a result, she was able to generalize the yoga session experience to other classroom situations.
Students also talk about new-found strengths, such as the courage to explore the unfamiliar. Finding ease while building a repertoire of accomplished, physically-demanding poses, encourages moving outside comfort zones, both intellectual and physical.
“Another learning experience I had during this half-year of yoga was how to try new things without being nervous. I tried many new poses when I was not sure if I was able to do it. I was able to do a lot more than I had expected,” says one of the students. This confidence extends into other parts of life.
As one freshman says, “I enjoy learning new poses that challenge me to exceed my comfort level.”
As students communicate their reactions, they’re developing and practicing critical thinking skills. The student is talking and/or writing analytically, and so, sharpening mental teeth and flexing the cognitive muscle. In addition, she/he is developing “metacognitive awareness,”* an understanding of one’s personal learning style. With that understanding, the student can tweak approaches to studying. The practice of reflecting on the practice paves a path to improved learning.
On one end of the spectrum we have, “Since I joined the class, there has been a noticeable improvement in my perception of my body and my surroundings. Yoga is a way for me to connect with myself and be aware of the things that usually go unnoticed, like the quiet flow of air filling our bodies as we breathe. This class gives me the opportunity to be more in touch with the intangible forces of nature.”
And on the other, the straight-forward side we hear, “I think I may become a yoga instructor, or something along those lines, to help me be more calm and happy everyday,” or even better, for the teacher who brought yoga to Gloucester High, “I would like to say thank you. You have a seriously great role model in my last two years of high school. … I have learned so much and gained so much confidence… Thank you, Mr. Sperry.”
** Metacognitive Awareness: “All learning processes and behaviors involving any degree of reflection, learning-strategy selection, and intentional mental processing that can result in a student’s improved ability to learn.” http://excellenceinschoolcounseling.com/develop-a-cba/define-student-excellence-overview/self-knowledge-overview/metacognitive-awareness/
Writer Holly Clay offers classes at the Gloucester Yoga Collective (GYC) at 114 Main Street, next to Sugar Magnolia’s. Sperry has organized GHS yoga “field trips” to the GYC studio on Main Street and GYC instructors have taught at the High School. The studio offers classes for people at all ages, and stages and instructors, some in their 20’s and others in their 50’s and 60’s, run the studio cooperatively. The 11 am Thursday class for veterans and people living with post-traumatic stress is free for vets with a $5 suggested contribution for all others.
Holly Clay is settled in Gloucester after many years of living overseas and in Washington, D.C. Holly is a member of the Gloucester Historical Commission and the Annisquam Historical Society. With a background in education and writing, her professional energies are currently devoted to studying and teaching yoga and meditation.