yoga in schools

Changing the Paradigm with UZIT in Schools

By Janine Harris Degitz

Janine Harris DegitzThis past Fall, Susan Cunningham and I began offering Urban Zen Integrative Therapy™ (UZIT) oneday a week to the teachers, staff and administrators at a local elementary school in Central Ohio. The commitment in this school to progressive education and caring for the whole child is taking root in a new way. The administration’s support of UZIT says loud and clear to all of the staff of the school—you can’t take care of the children you serve unless you also take the time to care for yourself.

Through a generous grant from local donors, and as a community, we are setting down new self-care patterns at work. We are creating a place, within the workplace, for teachers and staff to pause and take 10-20 minutes out of their task-filled days of service to children to tend to their own well-being, which has shown remarkable results.

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This week as I walked down the hall with one staff member to our small room next to the often-lively library, she reflected; “I associate work with stress and anxiety, and it is wonderful to have a place at work to come to that is relaxing and neither stressful or anxiety producing. Thank you for being here, it’s making a huge difference.” This client noted pre-session stress and anxiety levels of 7 on a scale of 10, and left after our 15-minute session with self-assessment numbers of 2 and 3. Changes like this in our nervous systems are central to the possibility of changing our work environments, transforming this critical workplace, which serves our children, to one that cares about all people involved, as well as the purpose of their work.

It takes time to undo our cultural training to overextend ourselves in
our work and home life. It’s a challenge because our North American culture tends to value being busy all the time and carries busy-ness like a badge of honor. Therefore, we need to make it a conscious part of our daily life to pause, set down the to-do list and the phone, breathe, listen and be quiet.

The messages in our heads are often very loud, “I need to be in crisis to ask for help,” “I have to work harder in order to be valued or worthwhile,” or, as one teacher mentioned before our session, “Well, I guess I’m really doing OK, maybe I don’t need to take the time….” It’s radical to make self-care the norm so that we know when we are out of balance in the moment.

How would it be to have 28 pairs of children’s eyes staring at you and know that you have tools and the space to breathe. That you can come back to the moment, notice your breath and your body, and share your gifts with our youth from a place of wholeness. It only takes a few minutes to shift from overwhelmed and anxious to ready and able to meet the rest of your day.

Life doesn’t wait for us to be ready, it’s happening each and every moment. Building skills of self-care and self-awareness is how we re-tool ourselves to be the best we can be in our lives. As a friend recently told me, “Fold up your super-hero cape neatly in the bottom drawer of your dresser – it’s not needed anymore”.

Janine Harris Degitz 
lives in Clintonville with her family. For the past 25 years she has deepened her passion for living in harmony with the earth and community through supporting local farmers, fermenting food, teaching and sharing natural and sustainable beekeeping, Urban Zen Integrative Therapy and compassionate communication. All things that bring her back into connection with her own being, the earth, the food that nurtures us and the love, compassion and interconnectedness of life itself.

Janine became a certified Urban Zen Integrative Therapists in April, 2014 and became a staff mentor/ teacher for the Yoga on High Urban Zen training classes beginning in 2015.  Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) uses multiple modalities to address the symptoms and stress of everyday life. The modalities include gentle movements, restorative yoga positions, body awareness meditation, breath awareness practices, aromatherapy and Reiki.

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Mentoring a Healthy Community

This April, the Middle College National Consortium (MCNC) held their annual student leadership conference in Columbus, Ohio.  The Conference was hosted by the Charles School at Ohio Dominican University, a local 5-year early college high school.  The students in these programs are from under-resourced and under-served areas around the country, most will be the first in their families to attend college, some will be the first to graduate from high school.
Read More…

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Practicing Empathy: On Teaching Yoga to Children in the Public Schools

Colleen Leonardi, dancer, choreographer, writer and yoga teacher, has been working with the Yoga on High Foundation for the past two years, bringing yoga to students in under-resourced schools.  Colleen not only inspires those she teaches, but also those who know her, with her sensitive, thoughtful nature and creative spirit.

As I drive to the school where I’ll teach another yoga class to children, I’m witness to what has now become a familiar scene. Homes boarded up with eviction notices on the door. Yards littered with well-used, rusty objects and trash. What looks to be young, young children wandering alone along the busy street, dangling one foot out into the road as if to tempt fate. I drive slowly, carefully. The scene is markedly different from where I live in the Short North, a neighborhood of bright flowers and clean windows—a place that feels like a place of privilege, now.

This is hard for me. I am sensitive and extremely thoughtful by nature. I think about how one of these homes might be the home of the one of the children I teach. I think about how one of these children might be a friend or sibling of one of my students. I see the interdependency of things in this neighborhood. My yoga practice and teaching does not start and stop at the door of the school. I am acutely aware, before even entering the classroom, of what I’m truly stepping into. My heart is full of what I think I know and all that I don’t.

It is a humbling experience to teach, always. But it is even more humbling when teaching children in need in the public schools. The need is great. The children have such big hearts. And all I want to do each week is stay and play with them for more than an hour. I want to love them more because I see the need. But I know I must trust that my hour with them is enough. It has to be.

That is the reality of my relationship with them. The other reality, the one I speak of above, is much greater for them and for me. I can help them breathe and create space in their body for movement and play. I can help them relax in savasana. I can help them stand tall and strong in tree pose. We can do a lot together.

But I cannot move them to a nicer home. I cannot make sure they’re getting enough food to eat to help them stand tall and strong. I cannot make sure they have someone in their life who will take the time to learn, laugh and fail with them, as we learn and laugh when practicing the poses and falling out of them, saying together, “Oh, that was hard, wasn’t it?”

So my yoga teachings and classes becomes an offering I dole out to them and the teachers who take the class with me. But when I’m preparing to teach I also know that I’m going to be met with another hardship, another dose of reality that is always hard to swallow. My empathic response is going to be triggered yet again and I am going to be left feeling powerless yet again. So I build the courage and resiliency to face these challenges and teach a good class.

And what is a good yoga class? I continue to ask myself this question all the time. Meditation leader Susan Piver says,
“If you’re not practicing what you’re teaching, than you shouldn’t be teaching it.” I practice yoga daily. But I’m not just teaching the physical aspects of yoga when I go into these schools. I’m teaching kindness, respect, patience, equanimity, balance, self-care and self-love. If I’m doing my job, the job I want to do with these kids, that’s what I am teaching, and also practicing with myself!

So I suppose my openness when I drive through the neighborhood on the way to the school and my ability to see the hardship and breathe it in and cry for the children and their families before walking into the school is a sign of my practice in action. I suppose my empathetic response is a good thing. I call on my training, my knowledge of the human body and my years of experience teaching children and adults, to be sure. But at the end of it all I have to be willing to surrender all that I know. I have to be willing to not think my way through the neighborhood and think my way through the class. I have learned that in order to really reach these children I have to walk to meet them with an open, full heart. I have to be willing to feel.

It takes practice, a personal practice that cannot be cultivated with the use of books and language alone. It is a path—one all of us teachers must walk at some point our lives. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to walk it now, and to write about it here. Namaste.

To support the Yoga on High Foundation consider making a donation or attending our Summer Soiree and Fundraiser Saturday, July 14.

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