What happens when you put a yoga teacher, a schoolteacher and a Downtown Eastside classroom full of Grade 1 and 2 students together? Read on to find out …
Every Tuesday at two o’clock sharp, Tanya Chernov “slides” into Janice Parry’s classroom at Admiral Seymour Elementary School. The Bikram Yoga Vancouver teacher brings with her a camera, a list of modified yoga postures and, most importantly, hope.
“Our school is located on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest postal codes in Canada,” Janice says, adding that it isn’t unusual for some of her young students to come to class each morning hungry, poorly dressed and ill equipped to concentrate on the day ahead.
“We’re dealing with a range of issues every day, from kids who haven’t eaten breakfast to children without socks on their feet to students who have a difficult home life, ESL needs or learning, anxiety and attention-deficit disorders,” she says. “You try to get them to focus and it’s hard. Some can’t even grasp what you mean by the word ‘focus’; they don’t understand why it’s so crucial not only to learning, but to coping with life in general.”
Having identified the problem years earlier, Janice implemented the MindUP program –an initiative by actress Goldie Hawn’s foundation – into her curriculum in 2005. The program includes strategies and skills for students that are meant to cultivate wellbeing and emotional balance.
“It’s a way to teach the kids how to focus their minds and take a moment to calm down and reflect on a situation when they need to make a choice,” she explains. “These are tangible tools they can pull out and use: knowledge of how their brains work, mindful breathing exercises and basic yoga postures that, in getting them to hold their balance, develop their ability to concentrate.”
Janice, who has been practising Bikram Yoga since Lisa opened her first makeshift studio in a dance academy on Dunbar Street, knows through personal experience how powerful – and potentially life changing – the 26 postures can be.
“Coming from 12 years of practice I can really see how much I’ve changed,” she says. “Now, thanks to instructors like Lisa and Tanya who are willing to donate their free time to come and teach us yoga for half an hour, I’m seeing the same positive shifts occurring in my kids.”
Tanya, who took over the volunteer role from Lisa last November, calls the 30 minutes she spends with Janice’s students “the highlight” of her week. “Teaching can be intense, especially when you’re working with six- and seven-year-old children who struggle a lot or haven’t felt very supported or connected in the past,” she says. “But when they start responding to you and telling you how the yoga makes them feel – essentially letting you into their world – it’s beyond worth it.”
Each session begins with the kids removing their shoes and socks and unrolling their yoga mats (adult-sized mats salvaged from the lost and found that have been cut in half) on the floor. Tanya then leads them through a series of modified postures – one set of each, without the heat. She says the improvement she sees from week to week is remarkable.
“Every week they can do a little more and a little more and a little more,” she smiles. “Best of all, they’re excited, engaged and respectful of each other while we’re practising. I recently had this idea to do a demo class, where I asked each student to get up and do a pose in front of the class. Kids who wouldn’t even speak at first were begging me to let them show what they could do. They couldn’t wait to get up there.”
As she and Janice watched children who were once shy, nervous or disengaged proudly demonstrate Triangle, Tree, Cobra and other postures to their peers, Tanya snapped pictures so the kids could see just how much they’d accomplished.
“They got the elbows, they got the hands, and I didn’t have to say a word,” she says, smiling. “When they wanted tips on how to improve or challenge themselves further, I would show them. They’d say, ‘Look how easy it is for me now!’ I can’t begin to describe how thrilling it was to hear those words.”
Besides building their confidence, concentration and connection to self, Janice says yoga inherently teaches the children to listen to their bodies, still their minds, take risks, challenge themselves, stay positive and learn from, encourage and help each other.
“These are all lessons they can take with them when they leave our classroom, that will last them well beyond this school year,” she says. “Any time you arm people with strategies to cope, you’re enhancing and improving their lives. To these children, the yoga that Tanya is giving to them is a very special gift.”
Chimes for Children Fund
Donations are gratefully accepted at Admiral Seymour School. For just $10 you can help purchase a chime for use during the children’s mindful breathing exercises (similar to the one pictured below). Please make cheques out to “Admiral Seymour School,” and indicate that you’d like the donation to go toward the “Chimes for Children Fund.”
Donations may be mailed to the school at 1130 Keefer Street, Vancouver, B.C., V6A 1Z3, or dropped off at any Bikram Yoga Vancouver studio.