• Awilda Rivera

Under The Bohdi Tree: Yoga, Privilege and Public Schools

Underfunded and over populated Public Schools are not a new phenomenon. For decades there has been a call to improve the quality of the education and experience in public schools. However, I know from my own experience growing up in New York City, that not every public school is created equally. Since nearly half of the funds that pay for public schools are connected to property taxes[1], it is easy to see why some schools are be able to provide robust curriculums with supplemental enrichment while other schools are not able.

The new normal for students who live in areas with underfunded schools is that they are not privileged with programs like Art or Music. Frequently, the school administration is strapped, understaffed, and focused on creating budgets that secure the school’s ability to provide students with much needed breakfast and lunch. As a result of their budget constraints, these underprivileged schools could only dream of providing supplemental enrichment programs for their students.

You may ask: If the students are learning the academic necessities in the classroom and the school is feeding them, what else does the student really need? The truth is that everyone learns differently. In Frames of Mind, Gardner discusses the variety of ways in which humans can learn. Body-Kinesthetic learning occurs when humans use touch, sound, action, movement and hands-on work to understand new ideas and solve problems. Yoga offers students an opportunity to learn using their Body-Kinesthetic intelligence.

Last Semester I was afforded the opportunity to teach the Yoga By Letter curriculum at two under served, under funded, and over populated schools in Atlanta. The Clarkston neighborhood, where these two schools are located, is populated mostly by Middle Eastern and African Refugees, while there is some residential development happening in Clarkston the current landscape is predominated by low-income apartment complexes. Many of these students are learning English as a second language, and all of them come from economically disadvantaged families.

Armed with a Curriculum that marries movement, literacy, mindfulness and fun, I threw myself into the work. Almost instantly I began to watch the students at each school transform. I watched these students who may have heard of Yoga, but had certainly never practiced it, arrive to each class excited and ready to move. They gleefully repeated the alliterated action words, laughing without reservation during laughter poses, and soaking up the names of their muscles, bones and glands. Unbeknownst to me, the students at Indian Creek Elementary loved Yoga so much that the word started to get around that 3rd and 4th grade were getting to do Yoga during PE and Health, with in a few days 5th graders were asking why they didn’t get to do Yoga. The next week , the 3rd and 4th grade classes that had gym during the flex period were asking their teachers to switch PE periods with the other teachers so they could get Yoga. The students who were not receiving Yoga could see the value in what their schoolmates were getting and logically they also wanted it.

Yoga, an endeavor marked for the privileged in the US, has enriched the quality and experience of public school for these students. Privilege is an unavoidable reality of the American experience; however, awareness of the inequity of resources can be the greatest ally of the underserved. Organizations like Atlanta Yoga Movement and the United Way are working tirelessly to expose under privileged children to supplemental enrichment programs like Yoga, while at school. I didn’t know what Yoga was until I was 15, and even then I held the limiting belief that it was something only afforded to the affluent. Thankfully the students of Indian Creek Elementary & Jolly Elementary have received some exposure to this life changing practice, and do not have to limit themselves by thinking Yoga is not for them.

The Yoga By Letter curriculum provides many benefits beyond the obvious as the students are able to learn Anatomy, Physiology, Vocabulary, Health, Science, Self Awareness, and Mindfulness all in one fell swoop. You haven’t lived until you have had a 3rd grader, that is still learning English, come up to you over flowing with excitement wrapping their fingers on their collar bone yelling, “CLAVICAL” or grabbing their heal shouting “CALCANIUS” in utter jubilation.

Yoga should not be a Privilege and it should be in every public school, especially the ones with socio-economically disadvantaged student bodies. Through exposing children to new ways of thinking, vocabulary, and ways of learning we are investing in the future of our society. The old cliché is true, The Children are our Future, so we must invest in them. I’ve decided to invest in them. Will you invest in them, if so how?

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