When students go off to school each day they are tasked with much more than swallowing facts and figures. They’re learning to get along with others, stay healthy and be life-long learners.
Theresa Doughty, MSPT, RYT, is a physical therapist at Gates Chili Central School District. It’s her responsibility to help students develop their strength and balance, improve their attention and focus and discover the benefits of quiet and relaxation. Gains in these areas ultimately improve academic performance.
If there were such thing as an elixir that could target these seemingly diverse skills, Doughty would administer it. In 2008, she found the next best thing in the form of yoga. Specifically, the Vinyasa style flow, which involves linking poses with mindful breathing.
“The practice of yoga is the one thing that therapeutically addresses every area that we are looking to improve upon,” Doughty says.
Light bulb moment
In 2008, Doughty went to a New York City continuing education conference to maintain her physical therapy license. While there, she took a session that intrigued her. Taught by Anne Buckley Reen, the session focused on the benefits of yoga for children with developmental disabilities. Reen had so much success, she developed a daily program for schools.
Doughty left with a single takeaway message. “We should do this for kids on a daily basis,” she says. “If not daily, then weekly. If not that, then they should at least have the exposure.”
Magic on the mat
Back at home in Gates Chili, Doughty convinced a couple elementary school teachers to let her go into the classroom, teach yoga and then track the results. She is careful to point out that yoga is a practice, not a religion.
The results were a teacher’s dream.
“In the six years that we’ve been doing yoga in the classroom I have seen an increase in overall strength, coordination and balance in every student,” Doughty says. “They are also experiencing and practicing the ability to be still in a relaxed and mindful state. That mindful state helps the students focus and attend to instruction.”
For some students, spending time on a yoga mat is their first time experiencing their own individual space that is sacred and respected. Doughty says any time that gives students a chance to practice self-control and self-discipline while experiencing the benefits of quiet and self-reflection is time well spent.
The physical yoga poses themselves improve academic performance. Gains in strength, balance and coordination help with reading, writing, attention and self-control. It’s all about the small details that add up to a strong student. Reading and writing demands eye control, head control and the ability to shift effortlessly from the left to right — yoga requires the body parts to do the same things.
As for the kids, the reaction is unanimous: They love it. Not only are they excited to move their bodies in different ways, but they appreciate the quiet time during their hectic, noisy days. One mother told Doughty that her daughter wanted a yoga mat for Christmas.
For six years, Doughty followed Reen, taking the continuing education courses that she offered. However, Doughty found that some teachers accepted and supported the yoga in the classroom, but others did not.
“Teachers trusted me as a physical therapist,” she says. “But to gain more trust I needed to become a registered yoga teacher (RYT). When you’re committed to your own practice it’s easier to share the benefits rather than just saying ‘try this.’”
In autumn 2016, Doughty fulfilled 200 hours of yoga teacher training at Breathe yoga studio. She learned about the history of yoga, anatomy, breathing, etc. One year later, she advanced her training to the 500-hour certification.
Doughty found that teachers responded. “When I embody the practice and live it, teachers wanted more of it,” she says.
These days, Doughty teaches nine classes per week to mostly kindergartners along with a second- and a third-grade class. She also continues to teach at Breathe. “Really, you can practice it anywhere,” she says. “It’s just cool.”