Photo: A student demonstrates the tree pose as teacher Stephanie Kennelly and classmates follow, using yoga mats inside of Kennelly's classroom.A student, right, demonstrates tree pose as teacher Stephanie Kennelly and classmates follow.

A breath of fresh air

Bringing mindfulness and movement into the classroom

Winter sun filters through the windows as Stephanie Kennelly, ’06, helps her third-graders gather in a circle. Some sit on chairs, some on square mats at the center of their classroom.

The students’ attention turns inward as moving-and-learning instructor Kathy Flaminio, ’93, begins the session. Flaminio is certified in Yoga Calm®, a wellness curriculum that centers its research-based activities around principles of stillness, strength, listening, grounding, and community.

Today’s focus is strength. Five student leaders welcome their peers into the session with muscle tension-and-release exercises paired with deep breaths. Then the rest of the circle offers up compliments to the leaders on their tone of voice and technique.

Photo: Kathy Flaminio and students practice a yoga pose together inside the classroom.
Flaminio and students practice warrior pose inside Kennelly’s classroom.

“Think of a person, place, or thing that helps you feel strong,” Flaminio tells the class. Together, they discuss examples of physical, emotional, and mental strength. Then they practice “volcano breaths”—hands lifted together above heads and released out to the side and down, like a hot lava flow.

Combining mindfulness with physical activity can help foster social-emotional growth and train students to deal with stress in healthy ways. Garlough Environmental Magnet School in West St. Paul serves many students who have experienced trauma and adversity. But Flaminio and Kennelly emphasize that mindfulness practice is beneficial to all students, no matter their circumstances or abilities. Kennelly’s third-graders say that Yoga Calm activities help them focus in class, calm down before tests, and get along better with their families at home.

“It empowers them,” Kennelly says later of her class’s yoga routine.

“This has been not only life-changing for me and my family but for my students and their families.”

In addition to Flaminio’s sessions, Kennelly finds smart ways to slip Yoga Calm practices into the everyday curriculum. Her students do mountain pose while they wait in line, and everyone takes a minute for breathing and centering themselves whenever the class transitions between subjects or activities.

And because of Garlough’s environmental focus, Kennelly says, the school’s framework lends itself to her class’s practices. Themes of biology, health, and environmental connectedness translate well to the physical, mental, social, and emotional components of yoga.

“As we start talking about these topics, the students have a really solid foundation,” says Kennelly. “We’re big on observation here. Once a week we go outside with a naturalist, and anytime we’re outside, we do lots of outdoor Yoga Calm practices.”

The real-life impacts of yoga mean a lot to Kennelly as she watches her students apply in-class practices to other parts of their days.

“They’re taking ownership of it in their own selves and own lives,” she says. “The real practice happens off the mat.”

Channeling positive effects

Kennelly and Flaminio’s partnership began in spring 2016 when the two met through a mutual friend. Flaminio’s business, 1000 Petals LLC, offers well-being training and workshops based on mindfulness and movement to schools and therapeutic environments. Her sessions at Garlough—which began in fall 2016 and were so successful they continued in winter 2017—are a part of a set of Moving and Learning residencies that she has implemented in more than 100 classrooms. A study in Minneapolis schools in 2007 showed that regular use of Yoga Calm practices improved feelings of student community, decreased behavioral referrals, lowered general classroom volume, and increased the amount of time students spent on task, especially during reading.

According to Kennelly and Flaminio, the effects of Yoga Calm practices are long lasting, even for younger students. Once kids learn it, they’re able to apply it to their lives outside of school as well.

Photo: A boy seated in a chair practices mindful breathing independently.
Many of Kennelly’s students practice mindful breathing on their own.

At parent–teacher conferences in the fall, Kennelly began to hear from parents who’d seen remarkable changes in their home dynamics. Some have even reported being led by their kids in calming exercises when it’s clear that they’re stressed out about something.

“When I ask what was good in school today, I’m as likely to hear about new poses or practices as I am other activities,” says Derek Schwartz, the father of a student in Kennelly’s class. “I’ve seen her at home, for example, when she’s handling one of our pets, she’ll often take a breath to help center herself and get calm.”

“The parents of my students say this is the best year they’ve had,” says Kennelly. “The kids are advocating.”

Paths to practice

Flaminio was a college student in social work when she earned fitness certifications and started teaching yoga. After completing her master of social work, she began integrating mindfulness and movement as a school social worker.

“I’d always had these two passions in my life—working really hard and then doing yoga and fitness to unwind and de-stress,” Flaminio says. “These passions came together when I tried yoga with some students who were particularly challenging.”

“I realized I had been doing my work from the chin up—cognitive therapy—when trauma is in the nervous system, and I need to work from the chin down—that is, with the body. The changes I saw were so dramatic when I started working with mind, body, and heart.” 

Flaminio spent a sabbatical year studying the relationship between yoga, mindfulness, and mental health. That’s when she learned about Yoga Calm, designed by a husband-and-wife team in Oregon for schools, hospitals, and other community-based settings. She incorporated Yoga Calm into the mission of 1000 Petals.

“We’re raising really smart kids, they make it to college, and they’re not surviving because they’re anxious,” Flaminio says. “We can’t keep raising smart, anxious children. We’ve got to raise children that are strong physically, emotionally, and mentally. Growing these three areas equally is the key to a happy, well-adjusted child.”

Meanwhile, Kennelly has been practicing yoga since high school. It was somebody at the studio she attends regularly who introduced her to Flaminio.

Motivated by the importance of yoga practice in her own life and the needs she saw in her classroom, Kennelly brought the idea to Garlough principal Sue Powell, ’89, ’96.

“Our school was having a huge issue with students affected by trauma,” Powell says. Kennelly and Flaminio’s collaboration offered a way for all students to learn about healthy stress reduction.

“Maybe they don’t have control of what’s going on at home, but they know that they can be in control of themselves,” says Powell.

First steps

A successful mindfulness practice in the classroom requires commitment to a nontraditional instruction style, Kennelly and Flaminio agree.

“It’s a very different way of teaching,” says Flaminio. “When you’re breathing with students, you’re at the same level. In fact, they’re teaching, too.”

The sense of teacher–student equality is important to Kennelly.

“It’s not about an adult being in control,” she says. “I can’t as your teacher be the one that tethers you down—you have to have something inside yourself, like a compass to get you through the day.”

Photo: A group of students practices yoga poses in the woods outside of their school.
Students at Garlough Environmental Magnet School, located next to a 320-acre nature center, practice Yoga Calm indoors and out.

Flaminio recommends teachers start by focusing on their own presence and the kind of energy they bring to class.

“Whatever you can do to be conscious of how you’re showing up and how you’re using your body is absolutely critical,” she says. “In the education system, we’re all givers—we don’t put self-care at the top of the list—but it has to be at the top because that self-care is the intervention.”

Kennelly was recognized by the districtwide wellness committee with a Healthy Hero Award for her good work with Yoga Calm. Like all teachers, she deals with an always-busy class schedule, but Kennelly believes her strategic incorporation of mindfulness and movement is achievable and worthwhile.

“People always say, ‘How do you have time?’” she says. The time spent on mindfulness makes the rest of the day run more smoothly and efficiently. “I don’t have to give directions twice. I don’t have to stop. The kids get to task right away.”

For teachers looking to bring mindfulness practices into their own classrooms, Kennelly and Flaminio say it’s okay for first steps to be small. Introducing one concept, like mindful breathing, can make a noticeable difference.

“This isn’t magic, but we look for moments,” says Flaminio. “It’s that moment when a child says, ‘I have never felt this peaceful or relaxed before,’ and realizes that, no matter how messy life gets, it is not messy deep inside. And she has the skills now to find that peace inside.”

Kennelly recommends a minute of silence during class transitions and practicing breathing together as a group.

“It’s like getting a fresh breath of air,” she says. “You recharge your battery.”

Learn more about the work of CEHD alumni.

Story by Ellen Fee | Photos by Dawn Villella | Spring/Summer 2017