Interview with Kita Grinberg on teaching yoga to high school students

Kita Grinberg is a teacher at Alternative in Action’s Bay Area School of Enterprise in Alameda, California. She studies yoga with Alice Joanou at Loka Yoga in Oakland.

1. How did you come to teach yoga to kids? What led you to this place?

I had been teaching English and history in Oakland Public Schools for three years when I met my yoga teacher Alice Joanou and became inspired to practice and study yoga regularly. I referenced yoga in my classroom from time to time, and some of my students were curious about it. They asked if I would teach them. I was eager to share what I loved, so we met in the morning before school, just one or two students and myself, and did a little yoga in the classroom. It was a great way to start the day. Those few students enjoyed it, and remarked that it helped them feel calm throughout the day.

After four years in the district, I moved to a charter school and after one year of teaching a heavy load of academics, I was questioning staying at the new school. The amount of preps, of papers to grade, and of the same mode of teaching all day was burning me out. I tried to think about what would make the day better. I thought of teaching yoga, so I asked my humanities students if they would be interested. Many were. I approached the administration and proposed teaching one class of yoga during our elective block. As a school, we weren’t offering many physical education classes, so it seemed beneficial on many levels. The administration said yes.

After a few runs to find inexpensive yoga mats, a weekend course on “Teaching yoga to at-risk youth,” and figuring out how to make enough space in the classroom to fit our mats, I began to lead fifteen students through a yoga practice, five days a week. In response to challenges, I changed the class so we had two days a week on philosophy, writing, and discussion, and three days of asana (the physical poses).

2. What have you discovered about teaching yoga to your population of students? How is this different from how you might teach yoga to a group of adults at a yoga studio?

I originally thought that I should teach a rigorous, fast-paced class to my students. Various people advised to start with standing poses, so students could get some of their energy out before practicing more seated postures. After all, they are teenagers: strong, hormonal, and in need of activity. What I found is more than the need to be physically challenged and active, my students need permission to relax. I don’t mean relax in a lazy way, but rather let down their guards so their nervous systems are not in overdrive.

Many of my students live very stressful lives, dealing with adult realities, such as recent immigration, poverty, violence, parenthood, abuse, incarceration, and addiction. Many of them experience anxiety and insomnia. Life challenges them on a daily basis. While physical challenge has its value, it has seemed more important to introduce practices which allow students to calm down and move out of a fight-or-flight response.

I guide students to focus on and slow down their breath, to engage muscles without over-exerting, and to try new poses without tensing up. The pace of our class is usually slow, deliberate, and meditative. I use guided visualizations at the end before savasana, the final resting pose. We pay attention to our own experience (taking the attention away from the people around us, where adolescent minds spend much of their time), turning our focus inward. We learn to notice how we feel in our bodies, to listen to ourselves. We notice our emotions and thoughts, and discover that place inside ourselves that watches, but does not judge, analyze, or fight what is going on.

3. What effects have you seen the yoga practice have on your students?

I have been taken aback to witness some loud, rebellious boys become quiet and still on their mats, their eyes steady on a point in front of them. For me personally, it has been a testament to the power of yoga, to see these young people accept the practice so readily, and to see its immediate effect. In an end of the year survey I gave, the most common thing students report is that yoga helps them deal with their stress and calm down. Some have said that it is the only time in the day when they can truly relax. Others have said they receive:

  • “stamina”
  • “freshness”
  • “a load of relief”
  • “learning more about my mind and body”
  • “being one with myself”

One young woman said:

Yoga is helping my anger issues and I can be more calm with myself.

Others have also talked specifically about it helps them deal with anger.

There are certainly days when the giggles are present at the beginning of class or I have to confiscate cell phones, but overall I have been impressed with how the students have welcomed the practice as a healing tool.

4.What challenges have you encountered in teaching yoga to your students?

There have been many challenges! I realized that practicing asana five days a week was too much for beginning students. They kept coming up with reasons why they should sit out. At first, I wanted to stick to my plan and not allow what I perceived as “laziness,” but then I realized that I did not want to “force” students into the practice. I did not want to create a dynamic where I was pushing them into something and they were developing resistance. So I proposed to them that we change the structure of the class—to practice asana three days a week and study yoga philosophy the other two days. They liked the plan and from that point on, I felt more buy-in from the students.

There were still days where some students had excuses, and I usually convinced them to practice with us, even if they took child’s pose frequently. There were even days I let students rest on their back for almost the entire class. It was challenging for me to figure out when and how to encourage students to push themselves, and when to allow them to rest—or even not participate. I felt a tension between wanting to hold them accountable to the class, and the fact that I want them to feel they are coming to the practice of their own will.

There were of course smaller daily challenges, like students not wanting to take their socks off (I didn’t force the issue), wanting to have their cell phone in arm’s reach (I did force the issue), and conversations arising during class (I dealt with these differently based on the situation).

5. What questions are on your mind about this after your first year?  What might be your next steps with teaching yoga to your students?  

My biggest curiosity right now is if or how the yoga practice might impact student’s academic focus and work. Because of the school schedule, my yoga class has been at the very end of the day. While students enjoy finishing the day with yoga and going home feeling good, I would really love to teach yoga the first period of the day and give students the opportunity to carry their sense of well-being into their academic classes. I imagine they would be calmer and better able to concentrate on their academic work.

I am also curious how students will or won’t incorporate some of the tools they have learned into their lives outside of yoga class. There were times this year when some of my yoga students were sent out of other classes for being disruptive or defiant—and when I talked to them in the office, we used breathing techniques to calm down before discussing the issue. Some students have used breathing and visualization to fall asleep at night or deal with test-taking anxiety. I strongly believe that even if they don’t carry the practices beyond class, that hour of less stress each day is beneficial for their body and mind; but I also suspect that they will, even in small ways, bring their experience with yoga into their lives.

Teaching yoga has challenged me to bring aspects of my own yoga practice (specifically the practices of learning to be non-reactive and of cultivating an equanimity towards all kinds of situations) into the rest of my teaching. I am interested in the way I show up as a teacher differently depending on the discipline I am teaching and how I might bring lessons from my experience of teaching yoga into my academic classes.

I have learned so much from my first attempt to share the practice of yoga with my students and am excited to continue the work. I feel lucky that in an education system with so many mandates and not enough resources, in a city with resilience but far too much violence, I have the opportunity to co-create a healing space and practice with young people.

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