A Peaceful Refuge: Yoga for At-Risk Kids

April 1, 2012    BY Sara Neufeld

The 15 kindergartners ooh and aah as they line their shoes by the door. Since their last yoga session in what had been a dingy basement classroom at the Newton Street School in Newark, New Jersey, their teacher has hung recycled silk saris over heating grates on the walls. She’s also created an altar with framed photos of Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., hip-hop mogul and yoga practitioner Russell Simmons—and each of the kids.

The 15 kindergartners ooh and aah as they line their shoes by the door.

“Ms. M! Beautiful!” a little voice squeals.

A five-year-old named Rebeka pauses and takes a breath. “I was about to cry,” she says.

“Why?” asks the teacher, Danielle Mastrogiovanni.

“Because the studio is so cute.”

With an ever-expanding body of research touting its physical, mental, and academic benefits, yoga is rapidly gaining popularity in public schools around the nation. But yoga studios within public schools are another matter. In fact, the new one at Newton Street numbers among only a few.

Not that long ago, Newton Street’s repeated failures on state standardized tests put the school’s future at risk for being shut down. Yoga has been part of a massive turnaround effort. Last year, the first-grade class, which received yoga instruction and took mid-test yoga breaks—“After you finish number five, stand up and do your favorite warrior pose!”—had the third-highest literacy scores in the city.

At Namaste Charter School in Chicago, another public school with a yoga studio and a heavy focus on overall student wellness, 87 percent of third- through seventh-graders passed their state exams last year. Holding yoga classes in a studio rather than a large gymnasium “really helps kids to focus,” said Principal Allison Slade.

Yoga also provides a peaceful refuge for children living in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods like Newark’s Central Ward. Last spring, as a group of students congregated outside after school, an eighth-grade girl ran up to Mastrogiovanni and grabbed her hands. “She was like, ‘Ms. M, I need yoga. They’re about to fight, and I don’t want to be involved,’” the teacher recalled. As chaos erupted around them, they stood holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes and breathing.

Yoga also provides a peaceful refuge for children living in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods like Newark’s Central Ward.

Until recently, Mastrogiovanni and other yoga teachers sent to Newton Street School, through the nonprofit Lotus In Action, taught in a toothpaste-green room with ripped paper covering the windows. That changed when a Unitarian church in a neighboring suburb offered a donation and a service project. So last summer, Mastrogiovanni, 35, who teaches kindergarten as well as yoga, happily picked out soothing shades of lavender paint, and, after volunteers built extra shelves for a prop closet, she ordered 30 mats, blocks, straps, and blankets in blue, purple, green, and burgundy. She stocked a bookshelf with such titles as Peaceful Piggy Yoga and What Does Peace Feel Like? and put terms like compassion andbreathe on a word wall.

About 130 of Newton Street’s 360 elementary and middle school pupils currently receive yoga instruction for an hour a week in the refurbished studio, and Lotus In Action is working to make the program schoolwide. For the older children, Mastrogiovanni has created a curriculum called Go Hard or Go Om, using hip-hop, R&B, and reggae songs to teach yoga philosophy. One of her mixes, called Get Up, Stand Up: The Arjuna Edition, contains songs about standing up for what you believe in, like “Push On” by Surreal and the Sound Providers.

The kindergartners sit on the folded blankets on their mats, legs in “criss-cross, applesauce” position, before performing their Yoga ABCs. A is for airplane. B is for butterfly. C is for cobra. At the end of the alphabet, Mastrogiovanni asks whatnamaste means.

“It means we all love each other,” says Zhier, a boy in a Batman T-shirt.

“It means inside your heart is very beautiful,” adds another boy, Javaree, looking solemn.

“All of our hearts are beautiful, right?”

“Right!”

From the Mahabharata to Mary J. Blige

Sample songs from Get Lifted: The Ganesha Edition, a playlist Danielle Mastrogiovanni made to teach yoga philosophy to urban youth:

  • “My Life,” by Mary J. Blige, on looking for the good despite negative surroundings
  • “Window Seat,” by Erykah Badu, on learning to observe your thoughts
  • “Video,” by India Arie, on loving yourself unconditionally
  • “Respiration,” by Black Star, featuring Common, on remembering to pause and breathe
  • “I Remain Calm,” by The Roots, as the title says

Sara Neufeld
Sara is committed to making the power of yoga accessible to everyone regardless of age, income or experience level. She teaches adults and youth throughout Brooklyn, inviting her students to step into their full potential physically, emotionally and spiritually.

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