City stretches phys ed curriculum through yoga
Shaquala Austin, a senior at Pittsburgh Brashear High School, holds her "dancer" pose during a yoga session at gym class.
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For some students, physical education classes offer a needed respite from the monotony of shuffling between stuffy classrooms.
For others, they can be treacherous. They can feel singled out or self-conscious about their fitness and body shape in comparison to peers.
Pittsburgh Public Schools are integrating yoga into the phys ed curriculum to diversify the gym experience and give students at different levels of fitness an activity they can adapt to at their own pace and still have a workout.
"We build our [phys ed] curriculum around five components -- body composition, flexibility, muscular, strength and cardiovascular endurance -- and yoga has a direct impact on all of them," said Jerri Lippert, the school district's chief academic officer.
The concept was the brainchild of Joanne Spence, proprietor of Yoga on the Square, who approached the school district, Pittsburgh Urban Christian School in Wilkinsburg and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School in 2005.
A former social worker who started yoga to heal from a knee injury suffered in a car accident a few years ago, Ms. Spence said the idea of yoga in schools appealed to her. "I thought it would be a good way to give kids who are having a hard time managing their bodies the confidence they need to become physically active."
Now a certified yoga trainer, she said beyond the physical fitness aspect, yoga has the potential to enhance a child's mental maturity.
"There is every reason to think that yoga can help children as they grow and give them a sense of how to deal with anger and hurt," said Ms. Spence, who sought funding from the Grable Foundation and the Heinz Endowments among others to fund the program.
Initially introduced as a pilot program in elementary and middle schools, yoga is now part of the physical education regimen in 25 of 66 district schools, Dr. Lippert said.
So far, she added, all phys ed teachers have been through a yoga instruction session, but it is mostly practiced in elementary schools and middle schools.
It has not yet made it to many high schools because the district is crafting what its physical education curriculum will look like when it fully incorporates yoga, said Megan Perfetti, who supervises high school phys ed instructors.
Yoga can enhance phys ed because it creates a calm and confidence-building interlude for students who may have a hard time with some of the exercises and sports, said Dr. Lippert, a former phys ed teacher.
Cara McKenna, a middle school teacher at Allegheny Traditional Academy, said that while she has not yet had a whole period dedicated to yoga, students have taken to it as a warm-up and cool-down activity.
"For the age group I work with, yoga for my students still seems a bit slow. They are more into the physical games right now, but every time we do yoga, they are fully present and participating and they really enjoy it," said Ms. McKenna, the district K-8 health and physical education specialist.
"Yoga allows an entry point for students who may feel like they don't want to get on a track or soccer field after third period, for example, because they don't feel like having to go through with the hustle of sweating at that point in their day," said Dr. Lippert.
Chris Wolski and Kelley Gavlik said they have already seen a transformation in attitude since they introduced yoga in their phys ed class at Pittsburgh Brashear High School this year.
"[The students] absolutely love it," said Ms. Gavlick, a phys ed teacher for 10 years.
"It's different from what we have traditionally done in gym class and now they are completely into learning the yoga poses, the stretching and the breathing exercises," she said.
On a recent Thursday morning, Ms. Wolski and Ms. Gavlick were scheduled to do circuit training -- weight lifting and cardiovascular exercises -- with a class of 30 freshman, sophomore and senior girls. The juniors were excused due to state exams.
They chose yoga, however, to make up for a previous dance class when they would have integrated it into the routine, but also because "the girls said they want to do yoga instead," said Ms. Wolski.
As a CD mix of pop ballads blared, the teachers stood back and watched as the girls performed their yoga poses.
"They have learned it, they know it, and now they don't even need us to show them how to bend and stretch and meditate on the exercise. They just do it," said Ms. Wolski.
At Allegheny Traditional Academy, where Anne Kelly had a group of 17 kindergartners in an early Thursday morning physical education class, the yoga routine was a lot less cerebral.
It started out with a stretching warm-up before the children took to running around the center of a gym in a circle, abruptly stopping every time Ms. Kelly blew her whistle to twist their bodies into different poses.
After a 30-minute workout, Ms. Kelly led the group through a round of cool-down stretches as she explained the importance of lowering the heart rate after an intense workout.
"They absolutely love it. But what is amazing, they have been going home and showing their parents what they do here," said Ms. Kelly, who is planning two sessions of yoga with the parents.
First Published April 19, 2010 12:00 am