Stretching young minds: a sixth form yoga class at Stationers’ Crown Woods Academy in Eltham, south-east London / Teri Pengilley

At a time when the obsessive focus on performance is demotivating teachers and learners alike, the introduction of mindful yoga surely has the potential to transform the school environment for good

In my first year of teaching English at a London comprehensive, I had in my Year 10 GCSE class a girl with an analytical skill much higher than her peers, who were expected to get a C/D grade.

Throughout the year, I requested that she be placed into a set more appropriate for her intellectual ability; these were repeatedly rejected on the grounds that her behaviour around and outside of the school was unacceptable.

By the Christmas of her final year, she had been asked to leave by the headteacher. After pleading for the decision to be reconsidered, I was told that it was “too late for her” and that there was “too much going on outside the school gates for her to be permitted to stay”. I was never told exactly what that meant, but my hands were tied. Very quickly, I learnt that my main responsibility as an English teacher was to do just that, teach English; that the overall wellbeing of a child was worth sacrificing for a school’s position in the league tables and for a high grade from Ofsted.

In 2007, Unicef’s Report Card 7 was released, showing the UK as being 29th out of 29 countries for childhood wellbeing. Although this has since increased to 16th, the fact is, around one in 10 children aged five to 16 are still suffering from a “diagnosable mental health disorder”, according to the Association for Young People’s Health, leading to a variety of social and emotional difficulties such as violence and self-harm. We are letting our children down if we think that training them to achieve a handful of GCSEs is enough to send them into the world capable of coping with the demands that adult life can bring. 

Over the years, I have found myself in a constant battle between wanting to give my students a truly holistic education, guidance that goes beyond merely academic perspectives, and meeting performance targets set by the school system. In my experience, most teachers come into the profession because they want to make a positive impact on society, but are finding the need to meet targets at odds with their desire to fully nurture their students. If we want to change society, we must change the way in which young people interact with it, but how can we do this if we are unable to fully support all aspects of our students’ development?

For some time now, the word “mindfulness” has been cropping up in the media. For many people, the term may sound like an empty buzzword, but a 2011 US study into school mindfulness programmes found an 11 per cent improvement in achievement, a 25 per cent improvement in social and emotional skills, and a 10 per cent decrease in classroom misbehaviour after two years. From a special school in Glasgow using yoga to support students with needs such as ADHD and Down’s syndrome, to a sixth form in Southampton holding yoga and meditation days, it seems that more schools are beginning to see the value of yoga as a way of providing students with crucial skills for life.

In the United States, where yoga has been popular since the 1960s, the benefits are well documented. Lauren Darnell, founder of Yoga Power Play, a yoga-for-schools initiative in New Orleans, points out that, as a form of support and therapy, yoga is welcomed because people are already aware that “yoga is a good thing”. Darnell states that yoga and mindfulness are crucial in giving young people an alternative: in a city where it is not uncommon for up to 19 shootings to occur in one weekend. Darnell, the sole provider of yoga to schools in New Orleans, gives students a new way to understand life and themselves.

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Yoga is an ancient practice, from which mindfulness, Buddhism and Zen all stem (Teri Pengilley)

Perhaps we can learn a lot from this approach. Yoga is an ancient practice, from which mindfulness, Buddhism and Zen all stem. Its use has scientific backing: a study from the University of Illnois last year found that just 20 minutes of hatha yoga followed by conscious breathing and meditation significantly improved participants’ concentration and working memory.

 Charlotta Martinus, founder of UK-based Teen Yoga, has observed that mindful yoga has a “profoundly positive effect on all pupils academically, emotionally and socially”. Bodies such as Teen Yoga, alongside Mindfulness in Schools, are at the forefront of this work. Both train teachers to deliver mindfulness classes and incorporate these techniques into every lesson, the latter with a focus on introducing yoga to secondary school students. The two bodies are now working together to develop a sustainable programme for use in all UK schools.

One British school that has seen the benefits of mindful yoga is Flegg High School in Martham, Norfolk, where a group of boys were handpicked as potentially benefiting from the techniques to manage their behaviour. Teacher Cata Parrish witnessed their transition from participating “from behind the safety of their desks to practising sun salutations by the third session”. Parrish observes that, “the boys are learning to be aware of their thoughts… this week’s homework for one is to notice what he’s feeling before he says something that will make him throw the first punch”. 

Schools such as Ralph Allen, in Bath, and Sedgehill, in south-east London, have even begun using the techniques to improve the wellbeing of their teachers. Teen Yoga is currently working with Leeds, York and Sheffield universities to conduct research into how mindfulness in schools could be most effective for young people and the school community – one of the original drivers being to support suicidal teachers. With the pressure for schools to top league tables while avoiding the dreaded grade 4 (inadequate) from Ofsted, students are often merely spoon-fed information, leaving teachers so frustrated that two-fifths of them leave the profession within five years.

There is increasing support for the idea that introducing mindfulness into schools can improve mental health among teachers as well as students. It helps to create an atmosphere in which teachers can have a direct and positive influence on the lives of young people, which, for many, is a key reason for joining the profession.

At a time when the obsessive focus on performance to the exclusion of wider understandings of education is demotivating teachers and learners alike – and driving some out of the profession – the introduction of mindful yoga surely has the potential to transform the school environment for good. So perhaps putting asanas on the curriculum isn’t too much of a stretch.

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