Yoga is a practice often reserved for sporty and limber adults, or anyone who can afford to spend $20 on a single workout class. Now, the upper classes are not the only San Franciscans who are reaping the benefits of yoga. Last year, the Mission and Ida B. Wells public high schools began offering the practice to their students as either a P.E. credit or an after-school program. The nonprofit organization behind the program — RISE Yoga for Youth — wants high school students to experience the physical strength and mental clarity that come from practicing yoga.
RISE Yoga for Youth addresses the stressful and often overwhelming realities of urban teenage life in hatha yoga practice at Bay Area high schools. The program guides students through a series of mental and physical strength-building exercises that they must synchronize with their breathing. RISE instructors tailor the yoga practice to high school students by weaving in life lessons that tackle common teen issues, such as stress and anger management, nutrition, and nonviolent communication. RISE Yoga for Youth’s hatha yoga instruction and mindfulness education will begin its second term at Ida B. Wells High School in Alamo Square this October. The program is funded at Ida B. Wells through May 2014, and it is offered to students as a P.E. credit. RISE instructors and Ida B. Wells faculty expect a repeat of the program’s successful trial run at Ida B. Wells in the spring of 2013.
Josh Zimmerman — a P.E. teacher at Ida B. Wells — has supported yoga instruction in public high schools since he witnessed how the practice affected his students. Many of Zimmerman’s students were living in high-stress environments, and they used their yoga practice as a way to escape from their social life and reconnect with their calm, peaceful selves.
“They have a moment in the day where they can experience relaxation,” Zimmerman said. “Yoga peels away the student’s first few layers and releases the calm.”
RISE yoga classes at Ida B. Wells are particularly helpful to teenagers coming from difficult homes. Class sizes are kept small so that instructors can give individual attention to every participant. The class provides students with a quiet space and uninterrupted time to connect with their bodies, their breath, and their thoughts. Students also bond with one another through group poses and trust activities. The practice is designed to strengthen teen bodies, while fostering personal well-being and creating healthy relationships with peers.
Erin Lila Wilson is the executive director of RISE and has been a certified yoga instructor for eight years. When she was a teenager, Wilson discovered yoga as a way to peel away her stress and anxiety. She has been passionate about using yoga to help teens ever since. In 2005, Wilson began teaching yoga to low-income youths in New York City, as well as in incarceration facilities and community centers since then. Wilson relocated to San Francisco early last year to begin teaching in Bay Area high schools. Her soft, calm voice and peaceful demeanor can make anyone feel immediately at ease. She is, arguably, the perfect yoga instructor for at-risk teenagers.
Wilson has observed her yoga students transform throughout the course of a semester. Many of her students resist yoga in the beginning, writing it off as a leisurely activity only for upper-class white women. One female student, Wilson remembers, informed her on the first day that “Latinos don’t do yoga.” Wilson laughs it off, knowing that even her resistant students’ ideas about yoga will change by semester’s end. Wilson says that once students open up to let the practice address their deepest mental, physical, and spiritual needs, they are enthusiastic about incorporating yoga into their lives. She has even seen students’ transformations follow them outside of the classroom.
“I see confidence building in the students,” Wilson said. “It manifests in the way they carry themselves. They seem happier, and even lighter. It’s almost as if yoga lifts a weight from their being.”
Wilson’s students last spring were vocal about the positive change that RISE yoga made in their lives. After last semester at Ida B. Wells, students claimed that yoga helped them concentrate on their schoolwork and improve their grades. Some students told Wilson that the practice was an escape from daily stress, and that yoga created a path to their own inner peace.
Students and faculty welcome RISE’s second run at Ida B. Wells this Fall. Some of the faculty, Zimmerman included, are working towards keeping yoga at Ida B. Wells after its funding ends in May 2014.
“There is talk of Physical Education teachers undergoing training to teach yoga to teens so that we can continue yoga at Ida B. Wells,” Zimmerman says. “Not everyone can teach yoga, though. We need someone like Lila (Wilson) to do the job right.”
More information about RISE can be found on the organization’s website at www.riseyogaforyouth.org
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