A student was arguing at the top of her lungs about Puma clothes. A teacher was reeling from a traumatic car crash.
By the time they hit “dead man’s pose,” they had both found their way to a place of calm.
The scene took place this week in a new yoga class on the floor of a high school gym—part of an experiment to integrate the ancient practice of yoga into the modern lives of students and staff at New Haven Academy (NHA), a small public high school on State Street.
All 75 freshmen at the school are now hitting the mat three times a week for required yoga classes. The classes are run by a not-for-profit called 108 Monkeys, which aims to spread yoga to new environments.
Peg Oliveira (at left in photo at the top of this story), who teaches at Fresh Yoga, founded the organization a year and a half ago with her wife and business partner, Jen Vickery. The organization has been bringing yoga “to places it doesn’t exist,” such as daycares, schools, and the inpatient floor of the Connecticut Mental Health Center. The organization has trained 150 “street bodhisattvas” to spread the yoga gospel around town. Volunteers introduce yoga into new communities, then find a way for people there to sustain it in the long term.
The partnership with 108 Monkeys has two components: Integrating yoga into gym class, and equipping teachers with mindfulness techniques for the classroom. A wide range of people at the school are getting involved in the effort. Teachers are discovering yoga along with freshmen. Upperclassmen are helping to teach freshmen yoga, and are getting ready to share their yoga knowledge with NHA families.
So far, school leaders are pleased with the experiment.
“It’s awesome,” said Principal Greg Baldwin. Besides stretching in new ways, students are picking up skills in mindfulness and reflection as they begin their high school careers, he said.
With the help of a grant from United Way, 108 Monkeys has been running classes 12 times a week at the high school, all for freshmen.
Monday morning at 9 a.m., Oliveira prepared for her class by sweeping out the studio space—a gymnasium built for elementary-sized kids. The gym sits in the basement of the old St. Stan’s school on State Street, which NHA is using as a swing space while the city renovates its home on Orange Street.
The small gym is not ideal for high school gym classes, but it’s a good size for yoga, noted Baldwin. Students filed into the room at 9:05 a.m. It was Monday morning, on a half-day: Students would be released early to accommodate teacher training. The mood was rowdy.
Wendy Marte walked into the gym and began arguing at high volume with a couple of friends. In the confines of the gym, their words swirled into an indistinguishable, high-pitched din.
“This is going to be a long class,” predicted one student.
Oliviera (pictured) placed her mat in the center of the room. Around her, a dozen freshmen found their places among two yoga volunteers. Paula McGovern, the school’s veteran gym teacher, found a spot, too. Totally new to yoga, she has been taking classes along with her freshmen in order to learn the practice and potentially teach it one day.
The gym fell to a hush as Oliveira directed the group to fold up into child’s pose on their mats.
Oliveira led the group through the components of a sun salutation, a foundational sequence of moves.
“Drop your belly. Lift your heart. Inhale!” Oliveira commanded with an enthusiasm that has gained her a fervent following at Fresh.
In yoga, each move is paired with one breath, creating a rhythm that aims to get yogis in touch with their bodies, focus on the present moment, and escape the drone of worries, hopes and fears.
“The breath is the beat, the pulse, the music. The asana—the poses—are the dance,” Oliveira said.
“Move and breathe, breathe and move. The stories, the drama—let that stuff go.”
For the most part, students stuck with her for the 45-minute period, trying out new positions.
Yoga volunteer Jay Norwood helped student Monae Reid tip up into a tricky arm balance called crow pose.
Then they slapped high five.
After one rigorous sequence, Oliveira told students to lie down on their stomachs and put their right ears to the floor.
“Do less,” she said. “When else in your day is someone going to say, ‘Do less’?”
Her directions addressed both body and mind.
“No matter how heavy whatever it is you wan to let go of, the earth will hold you,” she said. “If a story comes, exhale and let it go.”
“Come back to your source of calm and peace,” she said as they wound down class in a series of restorative poses.
Oliveira led the class to the traditional ending pose, shavasana, or “dead man’s pose,” in which the yogi lies effortlessly on the ground. The room fell quiet.
“No matter how chaotic it is outside those doors,” Oliveira told students, “this place of clam is always within you.”
At the end of the class, Wendy (pictured), who had been shrieking just 40 minutes before, calmly collected her clothes.
“When I came in, I was loud,” she confessed. She said her friends were arguing about “what brands of clothes we wear,” and whether the Puma brand is outdated. Before class, she said, she felt “jolly” and “excited.”
“During class, I felt more calm. I was trying to focus on yoga,” she said.
Wendy, who’s 13, was not an instant yoga convert. She said when she found out she had to take three yoga classes per week for her gym requirement “honestly, I did not like it.”
Oliveira paired Norwood with Wendy to keep her on track during class.
“Now I actually like coming to yoga,” Wendy said. “I get to just relax and focus on the moves.”
McGovern, the gym teacher, also said Monday’s class transformed her mood. After the room cleared, she shed tears of relief. She was reeling from a traumatic weekend, in which her 17-year-old son crashed his car into a ditch. Her son was OK, but the visit to the ER was very stressful, McGovern said. The accident sent her mind racing about what could have happened: Two kids at her son’s school, Hamden High, have died in car crashes this fall.
“Today, when I finally put my head down, it was like, oh my God, I can finally breathe,” she said.
McGovern had never taken a yoga class before this year. In the fall, she started taking classes 12 times a week along with her students. She’s training to possibly teach students yoga in the future.
Yoga “has been the best experience of my 27 years” as a gym teacher, McGovern said.
She said she has learned mindfulness skills, such as counting and breathing during stressful times.
“It’s helping me relieve stress,” she said. “It’s all about letting go.”
McGovern said at first, kids were resistant to the idea of doing yoga: “Why do we have to do this?” they asked her.
“I don’t know why,” she responded, she said. “More will be revealed.”
McGovern said kids have warmed to the idea. In this class, she noted, “they’re on task for the entire time.” That’s not always the case in a regular gym class, she said, where kids may refuse to participate. In yoga, they can just take child’s pose.
Oliveira, who has a doctorate in psychology, said yoga can do wonders for stress reduction.
When the brain feels stress, it goes into a “flight or flight” response that shuts down the executive functioning of the brain, which manages emotions and generates creative ideas.
“Stress steals your ability to pause and think,” she said.
Oliveira’s organization conducted a study on students who piloted yoga classes at NHA last spring. Using samples of saliva on cotton swabs, Oliveira measured students’ levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, before and after yoga. She also measured the activity level of each student’s parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the “fight or flight” feeling and calms a person down.
The yoga classes at NHA reduced kids’ levels of stress hormone and increased the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, according to Oliveira.
By reducing stress, yoga can help students’ brains “grow in a healthy way,” and help them learn to manage emotions, she said.
One of Oliveira’s goals is to help members of the NHA community connect with each other through yoga. To that end—and to help sell a foreign activity to a sometimes skeptical audience—she has recruited some students at NHA to help lead classes.
Students like Janel Robbins, a senior at NHA. Janel had never tried yoga before NHA piloted it last spring.
She said she likes doing yoga. “It’s like you’re not in school. You’re just by yourself, and just calm.” Janel is now helping Oliveira run some classes for freshmen. Janel helps out in a class with eight girls and 15 boys. The class meets last period on Fridays—a time of peak rambunctiousness.
Tyrasia Scott-Bethea, a sophomore, also got hooked on yoga after trying it out with Oliveira last spring.
“It helped me calm down a lot about finals,” she recalled. She recently took a workshop on how to lead yoga classes for preschoolers.
Both students plan to help out as 108 Monkeys puts together a yoga night for NHA families.
Meanwhile, several staff members have been getting involved as well.
Saul Fussiner (pictured), a history teacher, started taking yoga on Mondays along with the freshmen. He said he liked it so much that he began to take classes outside of school, at Fresh Yoga.
By taking a few yoga classes a week, he said, “I’m just more relaxed.”
He said he sees a benefit for his students, too.
“School is essentially a stressful place,” he said. Reducing a teacher’s stress level will help kids, too, he argued, because “the kids feed on your energy.”
Oliveira has also equipped teachers in “mindfulness snacks,” short breathing exercises they can do with their students when the class gets off focus.
Meredith Gavrin, the school’s “program director,” or assistant principal, said the focus on mindfulness and balance “fits right in” with the school’s emphasis on critical thinking. In yoga, she said, kids are “thinking deeply about your every move, getting in touch with everything that drives you.”
“Even just silence and restfulness—that’s something that our students, and people in general, don’t get a lot,” she added.
Principal Baldwin said yoga and mindfulness are “quickly becoming part of the culture” at the school.
“We’ve had a great start with the freshmen,” he said. “It’s been positive and calm. I’d like to think that yoga is a part of it.”