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Teaching kids how to create a safe space with yoga

Leah Rose Gallegos led the library at Charter Primary Expedited School. In 15 minutes, the room will be full of fifth graders in sneakers and school uniforms, arms raised above their heads, faithfully following her instructions to breathe, stretch, and look inward.

But at first it was time for a dedication of some kind.

Gallegos stomped around yoga mats spread on the floor, leaving drops of rosemary and lavender oil near desks pushed against the wall, bookshelves stuffed with textbooks and board games, and a row of reticulated insect habitats harboring newly hatched butterflies.

“It’s aromatherapy,” Gallegos explained, as the scent drifted throughout the room. “It’s one of the tricks we do. When they come in, they can feel like they’re somewhere else.”

Gisele Calderon does the breathing exercise.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

She said the rosemary selection was intentional; The resilient, sun-loving herb grows all over Los Angeles. In a later class, you’ll bring a sprig of live herbs for the kids to recognize. It will teach them how to transfer fragrance to their fingertips with a gentle touch, so they don’t have to wait until their next visit to experience that sense of calm.

This is what mindfulness class should do, she said: “The goal is to give them as many tools as possible to help themselves.”

Gallegos — who founded People Yoga with Lauren Quan-Madrid in 2014 in East Los Angeles — He was at Accelerated Charter for Mindfulness 1st class for the 2022-23 school year, a monthly offering for students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade.

Gallegos and his fellow People’s Yoga team teach children yoga postures, deep breathing techniques and meditation. In a world that can feel fearful and out of control – especially lately – class aims to teach children how to create their own safe space.

Lea-Rose Gallegos, co-founder of People Yoga, leads a class of fifth graders.

Lea-Rose Gallegos, co-founder of People Yoga, leads a class of fifth graders.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t tell them, ‘It will make you feel good.'” “See how you feel,” Gallegos said. “I really want them to regain the strength of their bodies, and to manage their emotions.”

A person embraces himself peacefully around his shoulders while surrounded by swirls of color and light

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The stresses of the past two years have led to a national child mental health crisis that has not escaped Expedited Charter, just a short distance from Exposition Park and USC. The school’s nearly 500 students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade collectively mourned family members lost to COVID-19 and watched as essential working parents face the risk of exposure to the virus, while navigating the chaos, uncertainty, and isolation of an online school and pandemic life.

No monthly meeting alone can heal those pains. But since the wakefulness class began, teachers and administrators at Accelerated Charter have noticed a slight shift in the way students respond to stress and the strength of their emotions.

At first, it was ‘yoga?’ What is this? What’s going on, said Nestor Alas, dean of the Faculty of Culture. “Because they have this perception, this mindset, about yoga being like, ‘Oh, that’s for other types of people. This is not ours.”

A year later, he sadly said, “Children use strategies in yoga to deal with things outside of the classroom—any problem, any problem.”

Leah Gallegos, co-founder of People Yoga, leads fifth grade at Accelerated Charter Elementary

Fifth graders take a mindfulness class.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier that week, he sadly found a kindergarten student crying over his missing lunchbox.

“What do you think we can do now?” Unfortunately asked.

The boy looked at him with a tear-stricken face. He replied, “Breathe.”

Together they took three deep breaths – through the nose, and out through the mouth, just as the child had learned. “I feel better,” he said when they were done, and then went back to looking for his lunchbox.

When Accelerated Charter’s entire South Central campus reopened for in-person learning for the Summer 2021 program, Principal Karen Figueroa could immediately see that her students would need additional support.

She said COVID-19 “was a new layer of trauma” on top of what the children were already dealing with.

Leah Gallegos, co-founder of People Yoga, removes her mask to teach the breathing exercise

Gallegos teaches breathing exercise.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Nationwide, disruptions in education due to the pandemic have undermined years of progress in math and elementary reading skills. These losses were most severe in communities of color and those with high rates of poverty.

Figueroa said the vast majority of students at Accelerated Charter know they are Hispanic, and more than 90% of the school’s families were eligible for free or reduced-price meals before the pandemic broke out.

Figueroa hired a counselor and social worker. She also wanted to take a step forward.

“With younger children, they can’t talk [stress], but they will display it in different ways, whether it’s pushing or yelling. This is the only way they know how to express it, she said. “So our job is to provide them with the words, techniques, and strategies they can use to deal with whatever they’re feeling.”

Second grader Gisele Calderon extends her yoga instructor's instructions.

Gisele Calderon spans the second row.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

I connected with Yoga people. Before the pandemic, the studio offered family lessons and occasional one-off workshops in schools. As the slow return to personal activities began, Gallegos felt a strong desire to expand the studio’s offerings to youth.

“I felt such a huge push to do something that would support the kids, especially during this time when everything is falling apart for all of us,” she said.

The students at Accelerated Charter weren’t alone in their struggle. One analysis of 80,000 young people worldwide found that symptoms of depression and anxiety doubled during the first year of the epidemic, with 25% of young people reporting signs of depression and 20% experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

It is a challenge that the United States – and California in particular – has not been prepared to meet.

Even before the pandemic, mental health was the leading cause of poor life outcomes in young adults, according to a public health advisory issued by the U.S. Surgeon General in December.

Stacy Hernandez-Puac, a second grader, stretches and rests as instructed by her yoga instructors

Check out second grader Stacy Hernandez-Boak.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

One study found that of the millions of children with a treatable mental or emotional health condition, nearly half did not receive adequate care. California ranks in the lowest five states in the world
School counselors to students ratio. A 2020 statewide review found that 97% of the state’s school districts failed to hire the recommended number of mental health professionals, and 25% had no such staff at all.

With a large gap between the mental health needs of students and available staff, many schools in California and beyond have adopted low-cost programs to enhance children’s resilience.

Several studies have found that regular yoga instruction in the classroom helps improve students’ anxiety and emotional regulation. By 2015, about 1,000 schools across the country implemented some type of on-campus yoga program.

But it hasn’t been universally embraced: Alabama law banned yoga in schools until 2021 and still bans meditation, chanting, and the use of non-English terms in any classroom mental instruction. (For example, the situation known in Hindi as adho mukha svanasana He should have an English nickname like “downward dog” and namaste Outside.)

Second graders Sofia Gallarza, Yasmine Salug and Gisele Calderon extend their yoga instructors' instruction

Students practice yoga poses.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

With children, teachers say, certain poses are less important than the deep breathing and quiet attention that yoga requires. In a world where all kinds of unexpected challenges are presented, the ability to create a sense of inner peace is invaluable.

“We wanted to be able to provide students with techniques related to self-regulating behavior, and self-soothing behavior, especially in stressful situations,” Figueroa said.

Back in Accelerated Charter, the room was filled with Edgar Dominguez’s fifth graders.

What is the definition of yoga? Gallegos asked the class.

“Be flexible,” shouted a girl.

With our bodies only? Gallegos asked.

“No. Matthew Rosario, 10,” said Matthew Rosario, standing on a mat at the front of the room.
Gallegos made them rise and extend their arms and legs as if they were climbing an invisible ladder. Do breathing exercises: breathe deeply through the nose, exhale through the mouth, as if dusting a mirror.

Can you tell ,Ojai Breathe’?” she asked.

Ojai Breathe,” the children answered in unison.

At the end of the class, Gallegos asked how they felt when they came that day and how they felt afterwards. A hand flew from the front. Japt Ibaria said that at the beginning of the class he felt exhausted.

And now?

“Grateful,” said the 10-year-old confidently.

When the pandemic broke out, Ibarria explained after class, the students “didn’t have anything – just do class and work,” he said.

But things are better now. He’s back in school. He can see his friends.

“We are not in Zoom or home school, we do yoga,” he said. “So I was grateful we had something to calm us down.”