As we continue to recognize the importance of mental health, we must encourage the integration of tools such as meditation and mindfulness. This has been the work of Youth Yoga Project. For the past five years, Youth Yoga Project has gone into schools and taught students mindfulness, regulation and yoga practices. SocialVentures had the incredible opportunity to sit down with Youth Yoga Project’s co-executive directors, Julia Handelman and Lauren Greenspan and discuss Youth Yoga Project offerings, how it came to be, and its evolution to the soon-to-launch Wellity Education.
Thaddeus Jones (TJ): When did you realize our schools needed a program like Youth Yoga Project?
Julia Handelman (JH): For me, it was that real-life frustration of wanting to help students calm down when they were frustrated or angry, and not knowing how. I have been an educator for the past 20 years. When you’re teaching elementary-age students, you’re with them throughout the day, teaching them how to follow rules, problem-solve and cooperate with other students. I found that using a punitive approach to discipline did not help me create the supportive environment I wanted. Little by little, I began to change the way I responded to students when they were upset and dysregulated. I started to teach them the breathing, movement and relaxation tools I learned from yoga and mindfulness. This changed my classroom community in profound ways, and when I met Lauren, we started to seriously discuss how we can reach more students.
Lauren Greenspan (LG): When I was working as a school counselor, I would work with students one-on-one. As I started learning mindfulness practices, I began teaching them to students. These were practical and simple tools that utilized their breath and would help them to navigate their world and relationships. It was a eureka moment when Julia and I started talking. We understood that these are really tools that anybody can teach, learn and utilize. We wondered what it would look like if every staff member in our (school) building knew how to teach these practices or if families were using them at home. I found the tools to be successful in my counseling world, and I wanted to be able to spread them.
(TJ): Can you go into more detail about what you offer as an organization? What does Youth Yoga Project do for its students and faculty?
(JH): Youth Yoga Project was started as a weekly yoga program in schools. Our program was a special addition to the schedule for an entire semester or school year. Our goal was to empower each student with tools to be well, one breath at a time. Pretty quickly, we realized that equipping educators with mindfulness curriculum and training ensured that all students in the school would receive instruction, not just a select few. To date, we have empowered over 150,000 students by training educators how to incorporate mindfulness and movement into the school day. We have seen a need for this type of programming grow, especially after the pandemic, and this left us thinking about how we can evolve to meet the schools’ and students’ needs.
(TJ): Can you describe what this evolution will look like for your organization?
(JH): Soon we will be known as Wellity Education, representing “Well-Being plus Equity.” Our mission will remain the same: to support students with life-changing tools for well-being through movement, mindset and mindfulness. We strongly believe mindfulness and regulation instruction is just as important as knowing any other core subject. We recognize that regulation is the fourth “R,” after reading, writing and arithmetic in education. We think teaching regulation tools is a social justice issue because all students deserve to learn tools to process their emotions and navigate their inner world. We feel confident that this is an achievable and necessary addition to K-12 schools. On our website, educators will find training for educator well-being, student well-being, and our alternative discipline program, RESET. We’re excited to be a resource for all K-12 schools, and are passionate about our mission to ensure that this fourth “R” becomes a part of everyone’s schooling experience.
(TJ): Can you give our readers a short exercise they can do at home?
(LG): We encourage Deep Belly Breathing which is the staple of our curriculum.
That looks like pausing wherever you are—aligning your posture, head, neck and spine. Perhaps placing a hand on your heart and a hand on your belly. Then, take a long full breath in through your nose to fill up your lungs, letting your belly expand to your hand. Then taking a long full breath out through your nose. After doing this three to five times, pause and notice how you feel. Notice any changes to your thoughts, emotions, or any tension or stress in the body.
This exercise serves as an invitation to cultivate the many tools we have available to us. This invitation is the foundation of our work with students, educators and the community.
You can support Wellity Education (formerly Youth Yoga Project) by visiting youthyogaproject.net. Their new site, www.wellityeducation.com, will go live by December 1. Visit the site to learn more about their amazing work and programming.
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