Body, Breath and Mind: Teaching a Healthful Yoga Practice

Asanas, or yoga poses – for strengthening body and mind, easing tension, and focusing breathing – are a healthful practice for students at Mount Madonna School (MMS) to incorporate into their school days.

Three times a week, MMS sixth, seventh and eighth grade students spend 15 minutes warming up their minds and bodies with an asana program led by yoga teacher Jess Westbrook and other faculty. Students gather in a softly-lit assembly room, placing yoga mats and bolster pillow “props” around the room. Voices are low, speech and movement, calm and focused. On a recent morning, several students chose to warm up with gentle stretches as their classmates got settled and Westbrook began to guide the students’ in their first pose.

This is Westbrook’s first time teaching a yoga asana practice, although she has taught meditation and pranayama, a form of ashtanga yoga involving breathing exercises, to children and adults for more than six years.

In addition to this practice with middle school students, Westbrook, a parent of three MMS students, teaches weekly elective yoga classes to ninth, tenth and eleventh grade students. For the second semester, most twelfth grades students are taking a yoga elective course she is offering focusing on stress relief, self-reflection and flexibility.

“I encourage students to explore all yoga and Ayurveda (an ancient traditional medicine and natural healing system of India and its cultural sphere, with a foundation from the Vedic Era, around 5000 years ago) have to offer them in the health and wellness of their lives; it’s so much more than ‘downward dog’!” said Westbrook. “I use asana practices to encourage breath awareness, alleviate discomfort, and focus on injury prevention and strengthening of bodily structural alignment. This usually entails asana to lower stress and counteract aches from sitting, and ‘smartphone necks.’ I introduce concepts of ayurveda by bringing awareness to the season, time of day, and weather as something to consider when building an asana practice. In class we discuss eating healthy with the seasons, studying sleep patterns, exercise and self-care.”

“Yoga class is very helpful for me because it gives me time to ‘get ready’ for the day, so I can give my best in other classes,” reflected sixth grader Mordecai Coleman. “I am really happy that Mount Madonna School has a yoga class so that all of the students can have this opportunity and really become present at school.”

Several classmates agreed:

“For me, yoga is really calming and helps me to relax,” shared sixth grader Ava Hudnut. “It makes me feel happy and I look forward to it.”

“While I enjoy the poses because they are good for my joints and relaxation, what I enjoy the most is the walking meditation,” said classmate Destiney Alvarez. “The combination of stretching and moving really helps to get my blood circulating in my body and makes me feel good.”

“Having yoga first thing in the morning feels really good,” observed sixth grader Cisco Rothman-Salado. “It helps me to stretch out and wake up and be ready for the day.”

“I really like the restorative yoga, breathing exercises, and using the yoga props,” said classmate Amelie Zands. “If I am feeling at all stressed, it helps me to feel calmer.”

Westbrook holds a B.A. in psychology/law and society from Oberlin College. She has worked as a behavior modification specialist and resource specialist aid for middle school students with the Mountain View School District. She is also an experienced massage therapist focusing on clinical deep tissue and sports therapy. Westbrook brings her knowledge of anatomy/physiology, kinesiology and injury prevention to her classroom practice.

While raising her family, Westbrook “dove into yoga study” and support of developmentally based education with a focus on positive discipline (as espoused by Jane Nelson). Before attending Mount Madonna School, her children attended a Bay Area parent-participation elementary school based in positive discipline that required certification in understanding and using Jane Nelson’s model to encourage strong social and emotional development beyond simple child development (lots of conflict resolution/ nonviolent communication).

“Within my own life yoga has been the most all-encompassing positive transformative practice I have ever done,” reflected Westbrook. “Mount Madonna Institute teacher Om Anand explained it beautifully one morning, and I paraphrase, ‘While my occupation is [fill in the blank], the greatest preoccupation of my life is yoga.’ I completely agree as I look back at how my daily yoga practices have changed my life in the 11 years I have dedicated to them. I truly love teaching yoga at MMS, in this way, with these age groups. Yoga and Ayurveda have so much to offer with a multitude of practices for most any person. There is nothing cookie-cutter about yoga beyond bringing awareness to the breath, the body, and calming the mind.

Over time Westbrook furthered her studies and gained several certifications: as a meditation, spiritual direction, Vedic counseling, ayurvedic home remedies, scriptural study, and Kriya yoga. Through studies at Mount Madonna Center, she completed 200 hours of yoga teacher training, and is in progress of earning an ayurvedic health counselor degree.

“I have volunteered at all of my children’s’ schools,” commented Westbrook, “and have always had a great love of working with children in most any capacity, doing my best to offer a safe environment for expression, listening to their challenges, accepting them completely as they are and offering guidance if asked.

Seventh grader Cooper Padilla acknowledged that while he isn’t particularly fond of the yoga practice, he’s experienced some positive benefits.

“After playing outside when I get to school in the morning, yoga is a nice transition before sitting in class,” Padilla said. “During the silent walking mediation, I am able to notice more about the things around me, like details on the trees.”

Cooper’s mom, Amy Padilla, said she is a big fan of yoga and strongly supports MMS incorporating the practice into its curriculum. She said she’s noticed her son practicing yoga breathing before bed sometimes, and feels it’s a helpful practice for calming oneself before sleeping.

Myriad Benefits for Children

“There are truly an array of benefits for children,” commented Westbrook. “When it comes to children and adolescents, so much of our culture is impatient, rushed and goal oriented,” she observed. “Just as we adults get wrapped up in being ‘human doers’ and not human beings, this is translated down to our children in alarming rates and ways. Research is showing the extent to which children are on screens, are over-scheduled, are pushing to achieve, are not getting enough (or the right kind of) sleep, relationships being affected by social media, and how these factors are affecting anxiety, fatigue, depression and immune issues. I have time with these high school students once a week for 45 minutes and only 15 minutes three mornings a week for the middle schoolers. If that time can be spent on learning to connect with the heart, to be invited to be peaceful, to mindful awareness of nature, breath and heartbeat, then that is more than they would have otherwise.”

Class Structure

Middle school is a large, lively and diverse group. For each yoga course there are two teachers, so students can choose between outdoor mindfulness walking meditation or indoor asana practice with savasana, a pose of total relaxation – making it one of the most challenging poses.

“On any given day, some students are not as invested or interested as others and that’s ok,” Westbrook said. “Barring any inappropriate behavior, I do not require strict compliance. These students did not elect yoga, and it is my experience that when pushed into yoga during “tween” years, there will be more grudges about yoga later in life.”

At the onset of the school year, each of the high school classes quickly became a yoga-focused study group, Westbrook said, because students were able to choose to take this elective course.

“As students set up their mats and props, we do a check in about stress, sleep, concerns, injuries, wishes, and avoidance for the practice that day,” she explained. “We warm up, follow a sequence of hatha yoga poses to apex poses, cool down to savasana with breath awareness. As the class opens, I discuss weather or season effects on the body and mind. I make observations on the ‘feel’ of the room and what I notice about the students and what may need support, and they agree or disagree.

Junior Maverick Bettencourt said he tried yoga once or twice before as a freshman, but did not maintain a regular practice. Now, a couple years later, he said he practices the yoga nidra or yogic sleep meditation, on a regular basis and has found it reduces stress and helps him rest.

“When I sleep better, I am better able to balance a busy school schedule with other parts of my life.”

“All asana is done with a focus on the unification of breath/body/mind taught as triputi, said Westbrook. “We discuss stress reactions in the body, and students share their stories of sleep changes, breath awareness when in stressful situations, or how they have tried the tools on their own time. The classes are small, intimate, and held in safety allowing the students to practice yoga without judgement or comparison. Feedback so far is very positive. Classes are tailored weekly with a check- in the last week of the month to see what students would like to focus on the following month.”

“I really enjoy having yoga class, shared freshman Alyssa Manzur. It’s a nice way for me to relax and take a break from everything, whether it be school related, such as the stress that homework or tests can cause, other activities outside of school or possibly even things happening at home. Having a yoga class has benefited me in many ways including getting in tune with how my body is feeling, learning how to control my breath and finding new methods of relaxation.”

Westbrook encourages students’ open questioning of the practices – the “why – of what the class focuses on, as well as encouraging sharing about discomfort, injury or challenges related to the practice.

“Yoga has been such a wonderful experience for me,” shared junior Noah Tervalon. “It allows me to take some time out of my day to ‘let go,’ and release any negative emotions I am carrying with me. I have taken a few yoga classes before, but with Mrs. Westbrook I find that she really understands how the kids are feeling and has the tools to allow us to truly relax and calm down. After every class with her, I find myself feeling fantastic and ready to take on the world.”

“I want students to develop an awareness, if not a deep experiential awareness, of the connection between body, breath and mind as a tool for stress reduction. Through practice and experience, students can see benefits of lower stress, improved sleep, improved immune function and deepened concentration by using the practices shared in class in their own time and asking for feedback.

“I hope to plant seeds of awareness so students won’t think yoga is one thing or another. It is for everybody with any challenge and welcomes all. The immense courage these students take in coming to the mat, giving it a try and sharing their thoughts and feelings about the practice is enriching for all, and a great learning experience for me. It is such an honor to have this time with these kids; they are the great teachers.”

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Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications, [email protected]

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.