Angela Swartz/Daily Journal
A class of girls practice yoga as part of Mills High School’s new pilot program.
Helping relieve stress from busy teens’ lives, along with exercising, is the goal of a yoga pilot program running in the San Mateo Union High School District.
The district began offering classes through the group RISE, which stands for Root, Inspire, Support, Empower, at Capuchino High School last year and now has a program at Mills High School. RISE offers a comprehensive education in hatha yoga, which includes instruction in physical postures, mindfulness and breathing practices, as well as a series of life skills workshops on non-violence, self-esteem, anger management, conflict resolution, nutrition, drugs and healthy relationships to teens.
The program first came to Mills after Erin Wilson, founder and executive director of RISE, met Mills Principal Paul Belzer’s wife Tiffany Belzer at Nandi Yoga in San Mateo during a fundraiser class for RISE back in November. Tiffany Belzer, a yoga teacher herself, told Wilson how her husband had been interested in bringing yoga to Mills.
“We’ve gone for the idea of a balanced class schedule,” he said. “It’s been really positive. We really see it as an opportunity to build the academic and personal well-being of our students. We’re really excited about it and are just getting started on ways to continue to put focus on student well-being.”
Mills has been working with a Stanford University program called Challenge Success over the last couple years and has been seeing higher rates of teen stress levels, Belzer said. He became interested in bringing yoga and mindfulness to the school this year and this semester a seventh period group of about 15-20 girls meets for yoga and discussions, while a ninth-grade physical education class includes a yoga unit during this pilot program.
In the girls’ class, the teens talk about various issues related to be teenage girl in 21st century. Students are introduced to yoga postures, breath work and principles of healthy living. Over the course of the program, students are supposed to develop a sense of achievement and competence, and develop tools to handle stress and anxiety.
“Teachers had kind of hand picked some of the more at-risk girls in the school,” Wilson said. “We also did a general promotion of the class to all the girls in the school. There’s numerous benefits of the classes — the main is stress reductions.”
A freshman named Sarah who is in the seventh-period class said she’s learned how to get rid of stress through breathing.
“It (yoga) makes you feel really good about yourself,” she said.
Meanwhile, the girls’ class teacher Stephanie Barea said the class is about creating a space for the teens to be who they are without worries or judgment.
“The external environment continues to tell you you’re not enough — you should be smarter, skinnier or nicer,” she said. “This is a place where you can show up and be perfect. It’s also about cultivating skills for how to unwind. Unplugging and relaxing versus distracting yourself from being overwhelmed with your phone, the media or friends.”
There are many beneficial elements to the class, including reduced stress levels. Sitting more has increased stress levels, Wilson said.
“Teens today, because of the innovation of technology and culture, leads to sedentary lives and increased stress levels, along with all the academic testing,” she said. “[Yoga is a] physical outlet to release the stress. You can use it any time to help manage stress. We teach breathing techniques to help energize them if they’re feeling really tired or depressed. They’re given the tools.”
Another benefit is emotional regulation and empowerment, she said.
“A lot of teens feel totally overwhelmed by emotions and can often feel like a victim,” she said. “It allows them to be aware of their emotions and allows them to move through them. They have sense of control over themselves even if they don’t have control over their lives.”
RISE has been in touch with Hillsdale High School and another site in Burlingame has expressed interest in the program, Wilson said.
For more information, visit riseyogaforyouth.org.
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