At first they giggled.
Last fall when the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School swim coach introduced yoga meditations to the team’s practice routine, the swimmers exchanged quizzical looks and snickered with one another.
“Yoga?” the students asked.
Coach Robin Tuck O’Callaghan was prepared for this reaction. In October, she had enrolled in the Spirit Moves You Yoga Teacher Training for Educators course hosted by Martha Abbot of Spirit Moves You, the Yoga Barn and Lynn Ditchfield of the Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV).
Every Saturday since, Ms. O’Callaghan learned from her instructors and peers the value and uniqueness of integrating yoga into a learning environment where it wouldn’t typically be incorporated. She brought breathing techniques, physiology and meditation to the pool.
“I just told them we were going to do some yoga. Some thought it was funny, others said it was weird,” recalled Ms. O’Callaghan, who learned in the training that acceptance takes time and “it’s not something that happens immediately.”
“At the beginning some wouldn’t even show up when they thought we would be doing it,” Ms. O’Callaghan remembered. “But I just ignored them and kept teaching.”
It didn’t take long for the swimmers to come around. “After a few weeks they would be begging me for yoga. They’re a nice group of kids, a really great group, and yoga was really, really good for them.”
Debbie “Kansas” Brew, a special education teacher at the MVRHS and also a student in the teacher training course, had a different approach.
“I don’t tell them we’re doing yoga,” said Ms. Brew, who has slowly introduced some deep belly breathing to her students, a relaxation tool she learned from the program. “I have done a little of this with some students, and I don’t do it all the time,” she said, “Because some students aren’t comfortable yet.”
But even through baby steps, the yoga has made a difference. “I’ve noticed if a student is anxious or something is difficult I can say ‘take a couple breaths and let’s start again’ and it doesn’t always work but it works more than half the time,” said Ms. Brew.
“I also integrated some stretches. Some simple sun salutation type things. And some sitting stretches, rolling your head from side to side, doing the stretches with a breath, inhaling with the head down and then exhaling, calming their breath that way, without them realizing that was what they were doing.”
For Ms. Brew, next year looks promising. “It was hard to introduce it in the middle of the school year so I’m going to try it in the beginning of next year. I want to do some sort of routine that’s small and not a big deal, keep it simple and short. I’m going to try it and we’ll see how it works.”
Valerie Becker, director of Integrated Technology at the West Tisbury School, also started with belly breathing exercises.
“I took the training with the intention of slowly integrating it into classrooms,” said Ms. Becker.
“Full deep breaths and expanding the belly so that you’re really conscious of breathing, exhaling and inhaling. It’s a lot of deep breathing and it’s calming them down. It’s very helpful,” Ms. Becker said.
“And you know what? It’s seventh grade and it’s June,” she said of one of her classes currently working on an annual newspaper project. “They’re busy. Right now, they are producing a newspaper in a week and taking breaks to do some stretches and stop staring at the screen. I have noticed a difference. The paper was smoother than it has ever been.”
“I like yoga because it’s meditation in movement,” she added. “The students are in a better frame of mind. I’m in a better frame of mind and none of this would have happened without Scarlet and Rex.”
Scarlet and Rex Jarrell, owners of the Yoga Barn, provided scholarships for educators at the schools, and the program was hosted at the Yoga Barn. Mrs. Jarrell, a Kripalu yoga instructor, was an instructor for the course. Mr. Jarrell was one of the students.
“We have lived and realized and experienced the benefits of yoga, and to gently let it be available to others and bring it to the schools, that idea was really a passion for us,” said Mrs. Jarrell.
“It’s this integrative holistic approach of mind, body, wellness, that is non-denominational,” added Mr. Jarrell. “And it sticks with our mission.”
The master instructor for the teacher training, Martha Abbot, also a Kripalu yoga instructor, was essential to the startup of the course. Then came Ms. Ditchfield, the director of ACE MV, for the final piece of the puzzle.
“When Lynn came on board it naturally formed,” said Ms. Abbot. “It was her connections to the schools and integration with graduate credits. ACE MV registered the program and marketed it, the yoga barn hosted it and gave support, and I taught the training.” “The program is 29 Saturdays,” Ms. Abbot added. “And an aspect of almost every session has been sharing how it’s affecting their lives and the lives of those around them. It’s been really great, it’s been what we had hoped.”
The program will be offered again.
“I think it went really well,” Mrs. Jarrell said, “In a way I think it was really special for the Island teachers because they feel that the weight of passing it on is not just passing it on but passing it on to young people.”
On Saturday, June 15, in a private ceremony with some close friends and family, the students will graduate.
“It’ll be beautiful,” Ms. Abbot declared.
The graduates will get a certificate of 200 hours credited by the Yoga Alliance, certifying them to teach. They’ll also walk away with a new set of skills, ones that they’ve already started to pass onto students inside the classrooms and in the swimming pool.
Coach O’Callaghan knows yoga doesn’t just stretch her team’s muscles, but also their minds. It calms nerves and keeps focus.
To think that the high school swim team once walked away from the idea of yoga, calling it weird, now that’s something worth giggling about.