Middle School yoga class stretches beyond physical education requirements
Originally published Feb. 4, 2019 in DailyTrib.com.
By Daniel Clifton
The girls streamed into Marble Falls Middle School teacher Trenton DeSpain’s classroom, bringing with them all of the worries seventh-graders carry, some more serious than others.
“Some of the things they worry about are why this person or that person didn’t talk to them, but some of the things they deal with are a lot bigger,” DeSpain explained.
While many of the girls smiled as they walked in, some faces exhibited other emotions — from unconcern to grimaces. DeSpain reminded a couple of young ladies about basic behavior rules. One girl looked as if she wanted nothing to do with the class, or school, at that moment.
Despite her firmness, DeSpain offered loving encouragement.
“I promise you, whatever is bothering, you’ll feel so much better by the time we’re done,” she told the student.
With that encouragement, the girl walked back into the classroom, found her mat, and took up her spot among the others.
DeSpain’s class is unlike any other at the middle school. She teaches yoga.
Currently, the middle school offers one yoga class, just for seventh-grade girls, but, based on the interest in this first-year program, DeSpain hopes to add more classes next year for eighth and sixth grades.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for several years,” DeSpain said.
As a yoga practitioner and certified instructor, DeSpain has experienced the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of the activity for a number of years. The middle school seemed like the perfect environment for such a class.
She pitched the idea to Principal Roger Barr a few years ago, and while he was supportive, he didn’t have enough information on how the State Board of Education would view the class to give it the go-ahead. After much research, DeSpain learned yoga met all the seventh-grade P.E. requirements but one.
“It met every one of the requirements with the exception of passing a ball,” DeSpain said.
So she added a ball-passing exercise.
Meeting state requirements, however, wasn’t DeSpain’s main goal with the class. She wanted to help middle school girls find a way to grow physically and mentally. Yoga offered such a path.
The idea for a yoga class caught the attention of the Marble Falls Education Foundation and its Grants 4 Great Ideas committee. DeSpain applied for a grant through the program.
At first, the committee members saw it as simply a yoga class.
“However, upon further examination, we realized the incredibly dynamic program Trenton DeSpain had created to support students as part of their overall well-being,” said Pam Parkman, executive director of the foundation. “The timing of this project fit perfectly with the district’s social-emotional learning focus.”
DeSpain admitted that some of the girls — maybe all of them — saw taking yoga as a way to get out of a regular P.E. class. After all, isn’t yoga just easy stretching?
It didn’t take long for DeSpain to dispel that myth.
“There are classes where they work up quite a sweat,” the teacher said.
DeSpain mixes several styles of yoga, including flow and meditative practices, throughout the week. The students learn to move in ways to which they’re bodies aren’t accustomed, but, as they progress, they learn, and feel, the benefits. One thing yoga really improves is the fasciae, the connective tissue surrounding the muscles. Much of the stress people feel throughout the day makes its way into this tissue, building tension, DeSpain said.
Yoga movements can help reduce that tension, allowing a person to feel better physically.
“But when that fasciae stress tension is released, wow! A lot of the stress you feel goes with it,” DeSpain said.
The physical and emotional benefits of yoga go hand in hand, which makes it a wonderful tool for teenagers to deal with their problems — some perceived, some real.
“Kids will just react to something without really thinking about it. Something will happen or someone will do something, and they’ll just react to it,” DeSpain said.
That initial reaction isn’t always the best response. Through yoga, which encourages mindfulness, students learn to slow down and think.
“My girls will tell you they don’t react like they used to when something happens, somebody says something, those kinds of things,” DeSpain said. “Yoga helps in so many ways.”
At the beginning of class, DeSpain asks the girls to think of an “intention” for themselves. It’s basically a thought or an idea with which they each leave the class. DeSpain describes it as an “I am” statement: “I am going to go out and show the world kindness” or “I am going to share forgiveness.”
DeSpain also emphasizes self-worth.
“I always tell them I love them and that they are enough. They don’t have to be something or someone others want them to be; they are wonderful the way they are,” she said. “Kids don’t hear that enough.”
As the class started, grimaces smoothed over. The girls’ problems didn’t go away as they moved from pose to pose, but the students seemed to become better equipped to handle them.
“It’s just about making some difference in their lives,” DeSpain said.