Exercising mind and body: Rush School fifth graders practice yoga before school

Basic skills teacher Hollie Helman spent 200 hours getting certified to teach her students.

Eleanor Rush Intermediate students Natalie Largay and Mikayla Coates practice back-to-back breathing at Rush School basic skills teacher Hollie Helman’s weekly yoga class.

A small group of Eleanor Rush Intermediate School fifth graders shows up to school an hour early every Wednesday to practice yoga with basic skills teacher Hollie Helman.

Helman read an article in September with her basic skills reading class about how students across the country are improving academically through yoga and mindfulness. As part of the lesson, the class practiced yoga for a few minutes, but that wasn’t enough for it.

“They just really fell in love with the practice, and they were totally inspired by the reading material,” Helman said.

Six months, 200 training hours and a vote of approval from the Board of Education later, Helman was certified to teach yoga to her students on a weekly basis.

The class starts with Helman having her students record how they’re feeling, which she says often includes words such as “stressed,” “nervous” and “tired.” They record their feelings again at the end of the session after yoga and meditation and are feeling “excited, confident and energetic,” according to Helman.

“I talk to the students a lot about how it’s something that they can use,” Helman said. “It’s a tool that they can keep within themselves.”

Pictured in the front row are Zoie Howard and Maddy Astor. Pictured in the back row are Natalie Largay and Mikayla Coates.

Helman says many of the 15 students who practice with her have issues falling asleep at night but have seen improvement through practicing mindful meditation. Recently, she talked to her students about using mindfulness to help them focus during PARCC testing.

“They’ll talk about how their grades are better because of this,” Helman said. “They’re able to have a stronger focus.”

Helman has seen other improvements in her students as well. Those who weren’t able to stop moving during meditation when they began practicing are now able to calm their jitters and find stillness.

Helman started practicing yoga two years ago and says it has helped her physically, mentally and spiritually.

“It’s such an incredible gift that I just love having the opportunity to share with the students,” she said. “It’s a gift that they give back to me because of the things that they express to me.”

Michael Perno settles into upward-facing dog.

Helman also teaches the students about equanimity — the ability to remain mentally calm in a difficult situation — and that responding to tough situations is much more effective than reacting to them, an idea she calls “respond over react.”

Rush School Principal Deborah Banecker says she would like to see the program branch out to other grade levels.

“It may wind up being one of our after-school clubs,” she said.

Helman says right now the students are focusing on finding balance and being OK when things go wrong.

“They inspire me to not be so afraid,” Helman said. “They’re fearless.”