CUMBERLAND — It's time for “Phys Ed” but the gym is really quiet. The class of 11-and 12-year-old boys and girls are sitting on floor mats and focusing on their breathing, some with their eyes shut. Then, following instructor Sunny Moriello Flatts' lead, they assume various poses and hold them for a time: Downward Dog, Dolphin and Plank Star. It's all part of a semester-long yoga program that is now part of the school day at the Blackstone Valley Prep middle school in Cumberland.
The yoga for students program is being offered by the downtown Pawtucket-based Shri Studio, owned and operated by WJAR-TV NBC 10 news anchor and longtime yoga practitioner Alison Bologna. The yoga program has been so well received at the charter school that Bologna has expanded it into the Shri Studio School Project so it can be introduced to other public and private schools around the state.
Shri Studio instructors began teaching yoga at Blackstone Valley Prep in December as a component of the school's physical education program. During the weekly 45-minute sessions, the students learn the basics of the yoga poses and breathing techniques. But they also learn, Bologna says, even more important lessons derived from the philosophical teachings of yoga that deal with self-awareness, stress reduction, and maintaining a peaceful approach to life.
Bologna said that in talking with the middle school students, most have a strong awareness of tension and stress, despite their tender age. “Many of the kids have said that having yoga during the school day helps with stress.
Particularly after a test or something like that, they come in and look for the stress relief,” she said. She also noted that several studies, including those done by the Grable Foundation and Kripalu's Institute for Extraordinary Living, have cited the positive effects that yoga has had on school children at a variety of age and grade levels, some as young as kindergarten.
Bologna envisions the class at Blackstone Valley Prep to be a pilot program for other schools. She notes that in Rhode Island, the concept of making yoga part of physical education is relatively new, but said it is being taught in school districts in other parts of the United States.
At Shri Studio, Bologna said there is an upcoming teacher training scheduled at the end of March so there will be more instructors available to teach classes during the school day. There is also an all-day “Yogathon” open to the public on Saturday, March 3 to promote and raise funds for the Shri Studio School Project.
“We're hoping eventually that yoga in schools becomes part of the curriculum, either in Phys Ed classes or even as part of the school day,” Bologna said. “Stress management, compassion, patience, non-violence...these are some of the things they learn on the mat and can then take off the mat and into the classroom as well as their daily lives,” she said.
Ed Laskowski, physical education and health teacher at Blackstone Valley Prep, said he had done some yoga himself and thought it was something that could be successfully introduced into the school's physical education program. “I wanted to incorporate many different styles of wellness. To show the students they can be well-rounded in their fitness.” He added that he thinks it is good for the students to see how they can relax themselves and improve their strength in an individual pursuit like yoga, which is different from a team practice approach.
Laskowski said that since the weekly yoga classes began in December, he has seen an increase in the students' core strength, balance and flexibility. “Their poses now have better form, and better technique,” he said. He added that he likes the fact that the yoga philosophy focuses on positivity and non-violence. “It's about learning ways to relax our bodies and minds to decrease stress levels. This is something they can do for the rest of their lives. It's another tool in their tool kit to being fit.”
Instructors Sunny Moriello Flatts and Hannah Resseger both have experience in teaching yoga and exercise to children, teens and adults. “With the adults, the classes are more serious. More calm focused,” explained Resseger. “With the kids, I try to make them a little more fun and engaging. I try to relate everything to them. For example, I rap, so I sometimes weave this into my instruction,” she said.
Resseger and Moriello Flatts both commented that youngsters are typically surprised by how physically challenging yoga can be. “It looks easy, but then they realize they have challenges that they have to overcome,” said Resseger. Moriello Flatts agreed, saying, “They learn that a non-competitive sport can be hard because you're working against yourself. But, we try to show them that it's fun to challenge yourself.”
Moriello Flatts noted that much of yoga is rooted in the Sanskrit word “ahimsa” meaning “non-harming” or “non-violence,” so she has spoken a lot to the students about the importance of being kind in their daily actions and interactions. “I found that the kids were really absorbing it,” she said.
Moriello Flatts also said that while yoga requires practice, the students can do it anywhere. They can also do some of the breathing and mindfulness exercises right at their seats, which can be helpful with reducing stress before or after an exam.
The students at Blackstone Valley Prep seemed to agree, with all of the 6th graders remaining attentive throughout one recent class and several enthusiastically volunteering to lead their peers in various poses.
“I like trying to balance myself. And it makes me laugh a lot,” said Faith Ramos, of Pawtucket, after the yoga session.
Nicholas Dale of Cumberland said, “It helps to calm us and lets us relax. It teaches us to calm our body.”
Lakrisha Brisbon, of Central Falls, said she likes yoga because “It gives you sturdiness and helps you work on your form.” She added that she sometimes does yoga at home, leading her brothers and sisters in the poses.