Chelsea Hylton is the founder of Project Peaceful Warriors, a program that works with students and educators in some area charter schools, teaching them yoga and meditation. These children were exposed to a higher level of violence in their community, making it harder for them to excel in academics.
“When kids start to lose their ability to self-regulate, that’s when the behavior issues start and they fall behind academically,” says Chelsea. Her class, geared for pre-kindergarten through high-school students, always begins with a breathing exercise. This teaches the kids self-control and is a great way for them to calm down and re-focus. Students also learn different yoga poses that can be used for quick “brain breaks” during tests.
Amanda Aiken, now the senior director of the Nola College Prep Schools, was the principal at Crocker College Prep when Chelsea taught yoga classes there.
“Chelsea was able to bring a lot of things into it,” Amanda says. “The kids went on field trips to Whole Foods and learned about making healthy choices, which is a big principal of yoga—having power in your choices.”
When Amanda first heard of Project Peaceful Warriors, she was thrilled, as she was always looking for opportunities that would address the whole child. And while academic achievement is top of mind for educators, Amanda did not feel that it was necessarily the most important outcome when adding an enrichment program.
“If something is positive in a child’s life and gives them some sort of joy or happiness, ultimately academics is going to benefit,” she says.
New data supports the cognitive benefits of meditation in elementary school children. A study conducted in 2015 found that fourth and fifth graders who participated in a four-month meditation program showed improvement in the areas of cognitive control and working memory as well as their math grades.
While Chelsea agrees with the research that suggests this reinforced level of higher thinking, she also believes that yoga and meditation can boost a child’s overall self-confidence and self-efficacy. “As our education becomes more rigorous, and students are having more and more pressures put on them, [yoga] can be really helpful,” she says.
Doug Kellogg of Marrero can attest to the positive impact of yoga and meditation. His daughter, Emily, was in the sixth grade at Jefferson Rise Charter School when she participated in Chelsea’s yoga class. Emily had transferred from another school where she had been enrolled since pre-kindergarten, so the transition was not easy.
“I’ve seen a big change in her. She used to really get stressed out to where she could not express herself well and was very frustrated. She is so much more confident,” Doug says. Emily enjoys teaching various yoga techniques to her family. They regularly have competitions to see who can hold the poses the longest.
Of course, all children can benefit from yoga, not just those in the charter schools. Bella Bedortha is a trainer with Kidding Around Yoga, a program that certifies individuals to be able to teach yoga to kids ages two to 12. She is also a yoga instructor at some area schools, including McGehee’s Little Gate and La Petite Ecole, a French immersion preschool. She feels that both yoga and meditation give the students stress-management skills which are important in testing situations as well as with competitive sports.
“Conscious breathing allows a child of any age to regulate their emotions and to reduce their own stress,” says Bella. She adds that it can simply make a child feel good about themselves so that in turn, they can act positively to those around them.
When Bella works with the younger children, she talks about feelings and being kind. “It’s a different conversation style when you are in a yoga setting. You can touch on subjects that are near and dear to your heart,” she says.
Courtney McGuiness runs a program called Buddha Babies, geared for young children ages 18 months to four, at her Mid-City yoga and meditation studio. She teaches her class with mindfulness at its core.
“It’s the awareness of what it is that we are doing, why it is that we are doing it, and how does it feel,” Courtney says. She strongly believes in teaching young children mindful exploration and feels that it is just as important as them learning to count. In her class, Courtney will do a lot of yoga games such as having them jump like a frog and then asking them how they feel when they are doing this.
“Children are actually already very good at being mindful,” Courtney says, “My job is to make them aware that it is what they are doing, to encourage it and not train them out of it.” Working in early childhood education, Courtney has seen many four and five-year olds with adult-sized anxiety. Studies have shown that it is difficult for an anxious child to learn and be productive in a classroom. Courtney combats this by teaching children ways to access their inner calm through their breathing and meditation.
Kristina Wine of Gentilly has her two-year old Aurelia enrolled in Buddha Babies. She has noticed Aurelia dealing with her frustrations differently now that she is in Courtney’s class. “She often gives herself a time-out,” laughs Kristina. “She will put herself in a quiet place, and several minutes later she will be fine.”
Sarah Herndon of Covington is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to nola family.