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Bringing Best Practices To Yoga In Schools — An Interview With Jennifer Cohen Harper and Traci Childress (Part 1)

in YD News
photo credit: Lynda Shenkman Curtis

photo credit: Lynda Shenkman Curtis

by Kelli Love

Best Practices for Yoga in Schools is the first book of its kind. It was recently released by the Yoga Service Council as a guide for yoga in schools, and is the first volume in their series of Best Practices guides (next up, yoga for veterans!).

The movement to bring yoga to schools is in its infancy from both a research and implementation standpoint. Most Departments of Education don’t have yoga “standards” that instructors can look to for curriculum guidance, like a P.E. or music teacher does. Prior to this guide book, teachers or principals were without a resource for how to evaluate a yoga in schools program and its efficacy.

As a person who teaches yoga in schools full time, I found the guide to be well organized and a thorough resource for anyone wanting to bring yoga to youth in a school setting. This is the first example of a text from children’s yoga experts who offer what they have found to be effective, but who aren’t marketing their own agenda for a particular kind of yoga practice or children’s yoga programming.

More than 20 experts in the children’s yoga world came together to hash out the best practices which were then edited over countless hours by Traci Childress, co-founder of the Children’s Community School in West Philadelphia and a Yoga Service Council advisor, and Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga, author and Vice President of the Yoga Service Council. With the book complete and just released, Jenn and Traci generously took the time to answer a few essential questions that are highlighted in the guidebook and are helping move the yoga in schools field forward.best-practices-school-yogaKelli: The book was quite a collaborative effort! Can you give YogaDork readers an idea of the process and how the Best Practices For Yoga In Schools book was created?

Jenn: Absolutely. The opportunity to create this book came as a collaboration between the Yoga Service Council (YSC) and the Omega Institute. The YSC and Omega have worked closely together for many years, and Omega offered to host a series of week-long meetings of leaders in yoga service working with a variety of different populations. We decided that the first meeting would be for those sharing yoga in schools, and from there the question was what is the best possible use of this time.

We knew that a gathering like this (23 teachers, administrators, program leaders, researchers) would be rare, and we wanted to insure that it was useful to the field as a whole, not just to those that were present. The idea of creating a book of best practices seemed like a natural fit with the larger mission of the YSC, and a great way to maximize the opportunity to gather. The working meeting took place at Omega in July of 2014, but before that the participants put in quite a lot of work. We asked everyone attending to fill out surveys, submit their suggested BPs in advance, and upload research to a shared platform. Traci and I reviewed everything that was submitted, and divided the participants into smaller working groups based on area of expertise. Then when we arrived at Omega, Sat Bir Khalsa spent some time presenting the most current research to the full group and then we dove into discussions.

All of the working groups submitted their suggested best practices at the end of the working week, and then Traci and I spent the next year synthesizing, clarifying, discussing ideas with contributors, writing and working to make the ideas as useful and digestible as possible. We worked with four outstanding contributing editors, whose roles were to review and revise content provided by contributors, as well as provide writing on relevant sections of the book according to their areas of expertise. After we had a first draft, the manuscript was sent to four additional reviewers for feedback, and once that feedback was integrated we moved forward with publication. We are inspired by how this book’s contributors came together, wrestled with hard questions, and identified some important issues for us to consider and evaluate as a community.

Kelli: Why is a Best Practices book like this so necessary for the yoga in schools field?

Traci: When we step into the school environment, we become responsible for other people’s children. This demands that we connect to a body of work that is larger than our own. When we work as islands, we work with blind spots. One goal of collaboratively outlining these best practices was to connect the work of many practitioners sharing yoga in schools. This is essential because it empowers us to hold one another accountable for bringing yoga into schools with a shared level of understanding. In the end, the reason this book is important is that it provides us all a larger context to work in. It sets our sight on a larger goal: to improve our understanding of how to share yoga with youth in schools in a safer, more effective, and just way.

Kelli: Right off the bat, the book outlines the necessary communication involved between school community and yoga provider. Why is it so crucial that yoga providers communicate proactively about intentions for bringing yoga to schools?

Jenn: Sharing yoga in schools is very different from sharing yoga with children in other contexts (studios, community centers, etc.) as schools have their own goals, requirements, and cultures that must be considered. For a school based program to be successful, the yoga instructor must come to an intimate understanding of the school itself, and learn about the many factors that may be influencing the experience of the children in their classes. Yoga may be unfamiliar to many in the school, and helping the school community gain a greater understanding of the intentions can significantly affect how much support the program receives, and how the other adults in the environment talk about yoga to the children. It’s also important to clearly communicate the secularity of any school yoga program, as well as dispel any sense of mysticism around the practices.

Kelli: Aside from our legal obligation toward secularism in schools, why does it matter that children’s yoga teachers bring a secular yoga to school communities?

Jenn: Yoga service providers working in schools have an obligation to recognize and uphold the principles of secularism, and respect the diverse religious and nonreligious beliefs of the school community, both in principle and practice. You mentioned that this is a legal requirement, but offering secular programming is also important in order to maximize the inclusivity and accessibility of our programs.

Secularism is not just about complying with the letter of the law and “getting in the door.” It’s about creating a space that is welcoming to all and where everyone can feel fully included. Children can’t feel fully safe participating in practices that their parents and other community members are uneasy with or opposed to, and public school must be a place where all students and families are respected. A commitment to secularism is a commitment to putting children and their communities first, and ensuring that our classrooms are spaces where all kids are safe to engage, learn and grow. In addition, programs that attempt to offer spiritual or religious programming in schools ultimately put all school based yoga in jeopardy, as there is a clear legal obligation, as well as motivate parents willing to challenge yoga programs in court.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part interview with Jennifer Cohen Harper and Traci Childress. Read Part 2! 

Kelli Love, M.Ed is an educator in the field of children’s yoga and mindfulness. She has been teaching in schools for more than 15 years and has practiced yoga for 20. Kelli currently teaches yoga full time at Girls Prep Bronx Elementary in NYC. She is a national presenter at conferences and recently made a short film, Aliza and the Mind Jar, to demonstrate the impact of yoga and mindfulness curriculum on school communities. Read more at her website: http://about.me/kellilove

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3 comments… add one

  • Truly wonderful! This is the way yoga in the West should be headed!!!

  • This moves me to much. The world is so hectic, I feel the school system should teach yoga and meditation. The sooner these kids have this knowledge, the more enriched their lives will become. @heatherwhite_lv

  • This moves me to much. The world is so hectic, I feel the school system should teach yoga and meditation. The sooner these kids have this knowledge, the more enriched their lives will become. You can find me on IG @heatherwhite_lv and healthyheatherblog.wordpress.com

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