Jessica Gershwin - LCSW, MEd, ERYT-200, RCYT
My first experience teaching yoga to children began in New York City. I was 20 years old and working as an English as a Second Language teacher at an elementary school in East Harlem. The students I worked with ranged in age from 5 to 13. They also spoke languages that I had never heard before, languages that I previously didn't know existed. Many of them had recently moved to the United States, and some were adjusting to being in school for the very first time. A few were fleeing countries where they had witnessed, or even personally experienced, extreme violence and oppression.
I was a very young teacher with a limited understanding of how to best meet the needs of my students. I was told that my job was to teach them English, but I quickly learned that their needs extended far beyond learning a new language. They struggled to sit still. They had no idea what I was saying to them. They yelled at each other in words I didn't understand. A few of them appeared worried and scared every day. Some of them needed food, a bed, clothing… I felt like what I offered could hardly touch their long list of physical, emotional, psychological, and social needs. Reading, writing, and speaking English seemed completely out of the question given everything else going on.
In the midst of feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and ineffective, I decided to start an after-school yoga group for my students. My own yoga practice was practically the only thing keeping me afloat as a strung-out teacher, and I was literally at my wits end. At the very least, I would be able to get some exercise before my long trek home through the depths of the New York City subway tunnels. I went to the library, found as many books about teaching yoga to children that I could get my hands on, and started planning.
The next day, I was met with 23 students of mixed ages, and my detailed plan instantly went out the window. The first 15 minutes were spent arguing over, rolling out, and arranging mats. Several students refused to take off their shoes while others threw their shoes across the room at other children. A handful of kids were having a fabulous time rolling themselves up in their yoga mats. I remember freezing and thinking to myself: I'm clearly sleep-deprived and delirious! Teaching yoga to kids is a seriously crazy idea! Amidst all the chaos and confusion, I took a breath. And then I took another. And another. And soon enough, I had a few eyes looking in my direction. I took another deep breath and rang my singing bowl. And while I'd definitely be lying if I told you that the students instantly calmed down, I realized, in that moment, the power of my own presence: my own ability to ground myself, collect my thoughts, and breathe.
As the weeks progressed, I continued to take the time to ground myself – both before greeting my students and also right as I began to teach. Each week in yoga group, we focused on a new word that I wanted to teach my English language learners - words like calm, strong, brave, balanced, kind, and connected. We explored and embodied these words through the use of yoga movements, stories, pictures, games, and breathing exercises. It usually didn't go as I had planned, but what I observed over time astounded me. I noticed that my students seemed happier. They not only took more risks in learning English, but also began teaching one another words and phrases in their native languages. They asked for help and, they offered help. They laughed more, and they smiled more. They wanted to learn, and they wanted to play.
Today, there is research that supports the benefits of yoga that I witnessed in my own students: improved energetic and emotional regulation, increased mental and physical strength and flexibility, improved focus and concentration, greater self-esteem and perspective-taking skills, decreased anxiety and tension, the list goes on and on...
In addition to these benefits, the practices of yoga help to meet fundamental human needs. My first experience as a children's yoga teacher in New York City led me to understand the needs that lie at the core of every one of us: safety, a sense of power, and connection. These days, in my work as a therapist and yoga teacher, I continue to offer yoga and mindfulness to children, teens, and adults because I wholeheartedly believe that these practices provide authentic, embodied experiences that help to build safety, empowerment, and connection in tangible and meaningful ways.