This weekend, Project Yoga Richmond had the opportunity to present at the 10th annual Equity and Social Justice Conference hosted with the VCU School of Education. The presentation discussed an evolving three-year partnership between Project Yoga Richmond and the English as a Second Language (ESOL) program at Falling Creek Middle School in Chesterfield County to provide Mindfulness/Literacy programming for Newcomer English learners. Using the tools of yoga and meditation, our goal is to share the physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual benefits of yoga to help communities and participants develop mind-body awareness and self-regulation, cultivate self-acceptance, and build resilience.
Our partnership with PYR started in the 2014-2015 school year. To give some context, the so-called “border crisis” had been in the news that summer. Increasing numbers of immigrants were crossing the Southern border. Large numbers of children, including unaccompanied minors were coming into the US from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). This was happening in response to increasing levels of violence and poverty there. That year, Falling Creek experienced a surge in enrollment of Newcomer ESOL students that continues today. Newcomers are new speakers of English who are in their first year of US schooling.
That same year, Carolyn Waters, ESOL teacher at Falling Creek and second-year doctoral students in the Curriculum, Culture, and Change track at VCU’s School of Education was part of a MERC teacher action research cohort at VCU, and did a project on family engagement for ESOL families. In talking to students and their families she heard many stories of separations and reunifications due to parents immigrating first then sending for their students, traumatic experiences in the home countries, interrupted schooling, difficult immigration journeys, and border detentions.
In the classroom, this seemed to manifest in increased challenging behaviors: difficulty focusing on school work, attention-seeking behaviors, fights, students shutting down and disengaging, parents telling us they had just gotten their teenage children back after long separations and weren’t how to handle anger and defiance, lack of native language literacy to build on for learning English. At one of PYR’s community fundraising events, Saturday Salutations, Carolyn heard about PYR’s outreach programs and their mission provide access to yoga and applied to have a program at her school as she believed her students would benefit from the practice.
Around the time of the Falling Creek ESOL program application, PYR as an organization was starting to engage in discussions around Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs, and how yoga, meditation, and mindfulness could be a community resource for serving youth and helping to build resilience. The ACE’s study was conducted by Kaiser Permanante and the CDC and associated adverse childhood experiences with health and social issues as an adult. Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a significant impact on health and opportunity. ACES have been linked to adopting risky health behaviors, chronic health behaviors and social problems, and shortened life expectancies.
Project Yoga Richmond also recently hosted a Trauma-Informed Yoga Training for its Ambassadors to ensure that teachers feel prepared to work with populations who may have experienced trauma. The primary intention of a trauma-informed yoga practice is to promote self-regulation. Self-regulation is the state of being grounded, centered, and oriented in present time. It allows for a sense of safety and resiliency and can lead to healing. Self-regulation is not about feeling only the good stuff. It’s about being able to tolerate discomfort. Being able to feel discomfort (a sore back) while feeling a resource (your feet on the floor) creates resilience. Resilience means being able to feel our fear/anger/grief while also feeling that there is part of us that is okay.
In our yoga and mindfulness programs, our goal is to provide an environment where students can experience self-care and compassion. The purpose of yoga is to not deny the uncomfortable or bad experiences, but to show that there are also good, supported ones. And to offer the tools that aid in healing and that promote a general sense of wellbeing and hopefully ease.
With this particular program, we decided to have a smaller class size, as to provide the opportunity during reflection for Carolyn and Holly to speak to each student and cultivate connection. For most part, we have had a consistent group of students, which helps in building trust and hopefully resilience.
When onboarding a new outreach program, Project Yoga Richmond is very intentional in its selection of accountable community partners and our ability to pair Ambassadors with relevant experience to the proper program. Holly Zajur, PYR’s Communications Manager and a PYR Ambassador, is currently teaching our outreach program at Falling Creek. Holly was a natural fit to teach this program based upon her work with the Hispanic community throughout her life as well as her teaching experience.
Holly feels deeply connected to teaching at Falling Creek for a number of reasons. When she was young, Holly was fluent in Spanish, but after going to school, she got embarrassed and stopped speaking. She now teaches yoga at Falling Creek in both Spanish and English to demonstrate the struggles of learning a second language and to encourage students to practice both Spanish and English. While she teaches, students often help her with the language, which helps them to recognize the importance of their native language and gain confidence, as well we demonstrating that it is okay to make mistakes when learning a second language.
Holly understands the powerful potential that yoga has to transform her students’ lives. She is aware that her students may not know where they are going to sleep next week, or if they will still be in school. These students already are, and will continue to face more adversity than ever before. She believes that in order to be successful, yoga is necessary to help navigate through the uncertainty they face on a daily basis.
This past week, a student at Falling Creek who is always enthusiastic and eager to participate had just come from the principal’s office and was visibly upset, and excused himself during class. At the end of class, Holly asked that young boy to walk her to the office before she left. She provided a walking meditation for the student followed by a moment to talk and reflect about why practicing yoga is important.
At the core of the program, yoga and mindfulness encourages connection and then redirection to integrate both the right and left sides of the brain. Using Holly’s example from class this past week, the yoga movement provided in class was a vehicle to connecting with the feelings or right side of the brain.
The walking meditation and individual time with the student was another source of connection. Once the connection is made, there is an opportunity to redirect the energy with logic and understanding. Redirection happens during the times of journaling (which is placed after the yoga practice) or when the student started to articulate the reasons why he practices yoga, therefore integrating the left side of the brain.
How can yoga be useful for healing trauma and building resilience?
- Yoga provides a fully integrated experience by which a connection is made to one’s own body and to others.
- Through breath, movement and experience in the present moment, yoga creates rhythms that aid in regulation.
- Yoga is a structured, supported, self-paced way for students to make small, manageable choices with respects to their bodies – and the shapes they make – that are kind and compassionate. In making these safe, healthy choices, students can start developing skills around acting rather than reacting
We follow some basic principles when teaching in this setting that promotes a shared experience of safety, inclusivity, and compassion.
- Always consider the room set up and place mats in a circle as opposed to rows
- Take final relaxation on their stomachs
- Repetition of movement/sequences – to build trust, confidence, and competence – a student now leads a warrior sequence
- The language used is always invitational, options are provided but not too many as too much choice might be dissociative
Carolyn did a quasi-experimental study of the students at the beginning and end of a yoga session one day last spring. Using a validated survey instrument developed by a researcher from the Psychology Department at VCU, Dr. Kirk Warren Brown the “Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale – Adolescent” which we translated into Spanish. The instrument is designed to measure “state mindfulness” or mindfulness in the moment (as opposed to “trait mindfulness” which is more general all day mindfulness). Mindfulness scores increased for every student, with a very large effect size and statistically significant results.
We are proud of our program at Falling Creek Middle School look forward to continuing our partnership and working on making this program as powerful as possible for our students. To support our ESOL program at Falling Creek and our other outreach programs, make a tax-deductible donation today!