Kristen Lalka: Our mission to bring yoga to as many kids as we can. We’re in 15 schools now, and we teach a 45-minute yoga class once or twice a week. We start in pre-K and teach through high school and even some GED programs. For younger kids it’s in their classroom during the school day, for middle school and high school it’s usually an elective. I think having yoga and mindfulness as part of the curriculum is very powerful and we’re finding more and more schools are really adapting to that. Some schools have a yoga or a meditation room, which is amazing.
Teaching kids about the body and breath is really about self-regulation and impulse control and that’s really important, especially for younger ones. The kids that we work with certainly are going through a lot -- a lot of them have really long commutes, a lot of them are coming from high-poverty neighborhoods, they’re coming from traumatic situations and a lot of stress in the classroom and in their homes. The more you can teach kids to self-regulate and understand what their emotions mean, and how to [get through] a wave of negative emotions and not be reactive is just one facet of nonviolence.
Yoga promotes kindness to yourself and kindness to others, and we really do use that terminology in our classrooms. Cultivating a practice of awareness will lead to a kinder, more thoughtful and more emotionally in tune community.
KS: Can you give us an example of someone whose life has been made better by this work?
KL: Last year we went to the National Kids Yoga Conference in Washington D.C. with some students. One student spoke really beautifully about how yoga can transform your academic life, like by having the capacity to take a deep breath before you take your Latin test. Another spoke about his relationship to his siblings. “It all started when I first tried yoga at home with my little brothers, “he said. “I have three of them so it’s really stressful! My mom and dad used to tell me ‘Help them with their homework while we’re out,’ and it was hard because they wouldn’t listen to me. Before yoga I used to get aggravated at them quickly, but after yoga I would try to breathe in, breathe out to release the stress, and now I actually get along better with my little brothers. That’s when I realized yoga could actually help me become a better person.”
KS: Who inspires you?
KL: Can I say my mom? She just retired but she was a middle school special ed teacher which I think must be the hardest job in the entire world. I think the fact that I landed in this education world has to do with her. She was teaching in a low-income area in New Jersey, and she always did much more than what was required to connect with her kids and to make them feel supported. She taught, but she would also cook with them and bring them fresh fruit and vegetables...really go outside of the academic work to help them be healthier and be more connected to who they are. I think that’s very important.
KS: How can someone participate or volunteer with your organization?
KL: That’s a great question! We have a teacher training coming up and it’s open to all yogis who want to teach in New York City schools. We’re mixing things up a little bit and doing one training at a school in The Bronx and one in Staten Island. We’re trying to create access and build a strong community in these boroughs because there’s not as many yoga studios and as many yoga teachers there.
We also have a group called the Yoga Professionals Committee (YPC) and they’re our junior board. YPC works on fundraising events and volunteering at events [like our gala and benefit classes]. People can go to our web site and sign up for our emails. We’re trying build a movement to support yoga in schools and we’d love for everyone to be part of that.
Kristen Lalka is the Program Director at Bent on Learning