From Anger to Positivity in an Hour
Working with the particularly vulnerable students at De Anza High School in Richmond last semester, Niroga brought hour-long yoga classes twice a week to classrooms in the Transitional Education Placement (TEP) program, specifically for students with social/emotional special needs that typically translate into behavioral issues.
Some of the students stay in these classrooms for their entire four or five years of high school, gradually earning privileges such as leaving their seats without asking for permission or eating lunch with the rest of the school through good behavior. "A lot of kids have ankle bracelets," says Vanessa Zellmer, Niroga Yoga Corps teacher. "They're coming from juvenile hall or home arrest. They keep a really tight watch on them. You come into class, you sit down, you're not allowed to leave your seat; you're not allowed to say anything or do anything unless you ask first."
According to Vanessa, students have mixed reactions when faced with their first yoga class. Willingness to participate often depends upon incentives offered by the classroom teacher, such as extra privileges, and upon the dynamics of the group. "If I can get the leaders to participate then it's fairly easy to get the others to participate," Vanessa says. "It's an interesting dynamic in these classrooms because the leaders are always the ones who have done the most 'bad' things. It's interesting to try and win those students over first, because they're the most challenging."
Vanessa encountered one of these students on her first day, before yoga class had even begun. He and another student were in a heated argument that was turning violent, when Vanessa intervened. Later, after an hour-long yoga class, Vanessa was amazed to see that the teenager's anger had been replaced with surprise and positivity. She remembers, "He just said, 'I love this!'"
This student also influenced his peers. "It's not only a shift for himself but now it's oozing out of him so much that he's trying to get other people involved," Vanessa says. As he remarked to a fellow student who was unwilling to participate, "you're either going to do it or you're not, but we need to get started because I want to get the full hour!"
Teachers at DeAnza have applauded our program, saying "Niroga has helped our kids greatly with self-regulatory techniques" One teacher called our program "a godsend" and another said that the yoga helped the students "keep on task, believe in themselves, and challenge their fears."