Teacher to Yoga
by Leticia Perez | 04.28.16
Leticia Perez teaches yoga to students in grades K-3rd at KIPP CONNECT Houston Primary. Her class uses a variety of techniques including yoga, breathing exercises, games and music to promote creativity, positivity and relaxation.
I was an English teacher back in Mexico, and taught all through my 20s. I’ve been a yoga instructor for the past eight years. When I found yoga, I fell in love with it immediately. Then, I realized I could combine my two passions in a way that would be so beneficial for kids in a school setting, like it had been for me personally. As soon as I became certified, I saw all the potential, all the joy. I was very fortunate to find someone who had the vision to want to include it in the classroom [Alma Salman, the founding principal for KIPP Sharp and KIPP Connect]. My goal with this program is to change the students’ lives one breath at a time.
I teach kindergartners, first graders, second graders and third graders, so you kind of have to read their energy. The kindergartners I see at noon, right after their nap, so you really have to wake them up. We start with a little bit of tapping and some breathing exercises that are energizing. From there, we move on to yoga poses, games and songs. By then the kids are fully awake, happy, engaged. At the end of the class, there’s always relaxation for five or 10 minutes.
The first, second and third graders come to class full of energy. So, the very first thing we do is one minute of quiet breathing. Right after [the holidays] we moved it up to three minutes and now we’re up to five — that’s where we’ll stay. They feel and understand what a few minutes of quiet breathing can do to make them feel relaxed and peaceful, but also energized.
The kids love creating things themselves, so right now they are creating their own 12-pose sequence, and they’re coming up with beautiful things. Next week, they’ll have a chance to guide everybody through their flow sequence.
Most of the time, the classes have a theme. If I know that the second graders are going to the zoo, then I’ll prepare a class around that. If, say, Halloween is coming up, I’ll have them create their own Halloween poses, [which] they love sharing. When it’s Thanksgiving time, we talk about the importance of being grateful.
It’s really a lot of fun — it’s not a completely quiet class like some of the adult classes are. But, that’s also why they love it so much. We move, we breathe, we get strong, we become flexible and balanced. I always stress the importance of finding balance.
We also talk a lot about feelings. They’ve been very expressive — “My heart feels happy,” “My heart feels sad.” Just a few weeks ago, I gave each one of the students a Post-it Note and they wrote down an affirmation starting with “I am.” They wrote whatever they chose — I am smart, I am happy, I am strong, I am important. We posted the sticky notes on the wall and that’s our affirmation wall — it’s still there for them to enjoy and to see.
I’ve asked the kids, “How many of you, when you are at home, are eating dinner, watching TV, texting and doing homework at the same time?” More than 90% raised their hands. So, I introduced a lesson on mindfulness [during storytime yoga] that they really, really understood. The [book] I used is called, “Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda.” They’re like little sponges. They’re taking all of these mini-lessons in beautifully.
I guess one of the most important things is that the kids are getting tools that they can put towards self-regulation. Now, they know that they can take a deep breath in, let it out and feel better.
The greatest thing they tell is me that when their mom is stressed, when they’re in traffic or something happens outside of the classroom, they keep repeating to their families, “Breathe in and be calm.” That’s something that I’m really proud of.
Another phrase that I keep hearing over and over again is, “I can do it, I can do it.” They are so excited when they couldn’t do a pose before, or they couldn’t hold it for more than five seconds and now they can hold it for 10. They get such a sense of happiness and accomplishment — they know it takes a little bit of effort to keep getting better. We talk about how we’re all different, that this is not competitive, that we all have different personal levels and that’s okay.
I see greater focus. I see a sense of joy in what they’re doing, being able to talk about being kind. I see that they’re grateful and saying all of these affirmations in a positive way — it’s wonderful.
Everybody is stressed — teachers, students. It would be so beautiful to see every school have programs like this. My hope is that all of this moves toward not yoga, per se, but maybe a life class that includes yoga, mindfulness, emotional intelligence — that combines all these things, and to have it as a natural part of [the students’] life.
Below, a few simple ways Leticia incorporates mindfulness and how you can bring it into your own classroom:
1. When [yoga] is presented in a fun, engaging way, the kids feel the benefits and they begin to express themselves. Just the other day, we had a mindful meditation with chocolate raisins. We talked about all that it takes to get one, single raisin to them — all the people. Then, they ate the raisins slowly, getting in tune with all of the senses.
I’ll also use aromatherapy. I have a spray I use that the kids love — just the smell makes them feel relaxed.
2. There are so many kids that struggle with a lack of focus. If they can do some of these breathing exercises before a test, these are wonderful exercises because they connect the left side of the brain with the right side. They’re meant for better focus, concentration, memory. It’s just incredible how you can feel the anxiety and stress level drop as soon as we’ve done the breathing — it’s like magic.