Take 5: An In-School Yoga Program

October 9, 2014    BY Kathryn Ashworth

How would you feel about sending your child to school with a yoga mat in hand? Thanks to a few innovative teachers, we’re starting to find yoga asana offered more and more at recess and in after-school programs, in gymnasiums and even in the classroom.

Though yoga’s spiritual foundations have provoked criticism from some sectors, on a practical level, there’s no denying that asana provides tools that support the learning experience, such as self-reliance, creativity, determination, and enhanced concentration. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits, especially with the demands of day-to-day life, is that practitioners gradually learn to control their reactivity to the ever-changing, external world.

The heart of the program is simple: teach kids to project, rather than suppress, their emotions, and teach them to express these emotions in healthy and efficient ways.

Recently, Yoga International sat down with innovative yoga teacher, Sheila Palmquist, owner of the Nebraska-based Lincoln Yoga Studio and creator of Take 5. Take 5 is a newly-developed yoga certification program aimed at bringing yogic principles to pockets of society that need them most, such as schools and foster care systems. Acting on its mission “to address and manage behavior issues that lead to childhood obesity, stress, self-abuse, bullying, and violent behavior of all kinds,” the program is designed to be easy to learn and to complement any behavior modification systems already in place. The heart of the program is simple: teach kids to project, rather than suppress, their emotions, and teach them to express these emotions in healthy and efficient ways.

“The idea is for them to start recognizing when they start to simmer so that they never get to boil,” states Palmquist.

Palmquist was first motivated to inspire change in the schools when she was living in Columbine and witnessed first-hand the damage the Columbine High School shooting had on members of her community. It was then that she decided that implementing a yoga program was a perfect means to de-stress students.

As she began working with administrators and kids at a local middle school, she observed that one of the biggest problems the school faced was a fundamental lack of empathy and compassion for self and other. Furthermore, the established behavioral management programs, which would otherwise be beneficial, were often underfunded and understaffed. More often than not, the same children (often labeled the “bad kids”) were being taken out of the classroom to an isolated room for time out.

The same children (often labeled the “bad kids”) were being taken out of the classroom to an isolated room for time out.

After talking with teachers and hearing that students were resorting to violent outbursts such as throwing file cabinets and pushing their classmates downstairs, Palmquist could see how necessary it was to institute preventative measures. 

"Our kids are falling apart and I think a lot of it is due to the chaos around them; and we often say, 'Hurry up, hurry up,' and then, 'Why can't you sit still?' We do it all the time. It's like, what do you want from me?" states Palmquist.  "And some kids are going home to environments that are not safe, so how are they going to learn to care about other people?"

It was then that she decided she could create a yoga program that would identify the root causes of these outbursts before they ever manifested. To do so, she partnered with the University of Nebraska’s psychology department to conduct research with a group of middle-school children. Part of their research included a short survey to assess the children’s stress levels, asking such questions as, "Do you often have negative thoughts or feelings about yourself,” “Do you have trouble making or keeping friends,” “Do you live in an unsafe home or environment,” and “Has someone close to you died within the past year?” Scoring 15% indicated moderate stress. Many of the children scored as high as 80%. After several weeks, what emerged was an accessible and affordable three-hour certification program focusing on fundamental yogic practices condensed into five-minute activities which aim to refocus and empower students.

"What if we would say, ‘You know, this is how you take care of this, because I feel that way too,’ instead of saying, ‘There’s something wrong with you'? Stepping back and taking five minutes to reflect could change everything. That's why I developed Take 5." Palmquist states.

The program is divided into five sections: breathing practices, exercise and movement, drawing and journaling, concentration and relaxation, and talk or touch. Simple sentence starters such as "I feel safe when...," "I am happiest when...," and "I wish...," combined with child-friendly asana practices, direct students to explore their emotions and bridge the mind-body gap. One asana in particular, "happy elephant,” which involves swinging the arms while standing, is beloved not only by the children but by adults as well. "By moving the arms from side to side, we release pent-up aggression and energy.  I find that counselors gravitate towards this pose because they carry the burdens of so many on their shoulders throughout the day," states Palmquist. 

Take 5's simple methods were developed to be implemented as needed throughout the day.

Take 5's simple methods were developed to be implemented as needed throughout the day. Whenever a child or adult feels overwhelmed, the cue is to cross the hands into a T and then spread the fingers of one hand wide, signaling it's time to take five minutes, or even 30 seconds, to regroup and find focus.  Adults are also instructed to lead by example, taking five whenever they need space to pause and reflect (and perhaps choose an asana to practice).

As for yoga philosophy, while the program does not address the yamas and niyamas (restraints and observances) outright, core themes of yoga such as aparigraha (non-attachment), ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), and non-judgment naturally weave throughout the methodology. This is clear in the drawing and writing portion of the program that encourages children to release pent-up frustrations on paper. Palmquist points out that it’s an excellent way to build trust, too, as the teachers are encouraged to shred the completed art or text without looking at it.

“They take five because they came from a place of distress. The drawing or journaling may be great, but it’s not refrigerator material. The idea is to release. If they write a bad word, who cares? They are getting rid of it! You kept them in the classroom where they can learn, rather than sending them out into the hallway, alone, for someone else to deal with.”

According to Palmquist, students are not only beginning to recognize how they feel but they're also empowered to take their healing into their own hands. Palmquist reflected on one afternoon when a group of children learned that a hawk had swooped down and stolen some baby chicks housed behind the school. One child paused and then asked quietly, “Could we please take child’s pose?”

“They start to know what they need and which poses are best as they begin to recognize their emotions,” states Palmquist.

The effects of the program are clear. Within its first year, Take 5 has reached thousands of children, teachers, counselors, parents, and social workers, many of whom are spreading the program’s instruction of their own volition.

“Often on bathroom breaks in the hall, I see students teaching other students Take 5 methods. Also, the “bad kid” mentality is fading away because these kids are starting to recognize, ‘Hey, we all deal with these things, and we’re all just learning how.’”

"We all deal with these things, and we’re all just learning how.”

Palmquist states that while word of mouth won’t provide official certification, she’s fine with this informal instruction. "As long as they're practicing Take 5 the way I intended, I don’t mind. We shouldn’t hoard this information. It’s not ours to keep or profit off of. Our kiddos need us.” 

The hope is that the program will grow nationally.

Aside from the Take 5 yoga program, Palmquist also teaches yoga for free in gymnasiums around Nebraska, as well as at children’s summer camps. Local kids have come to know and love her as “yoga lady.”

 "We’re all human and we all have these internal battles and issues going on, so let’s develop a way to deal with it,” she says.

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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