Just breathe: School yoga program teaches Cleveland students the art of namaste

Sonya Bapna Patel was early into a career change teaching public school in New York City when she realized something: Her students weren’t breathing.

The discovery was startling, but not surprising. Many of the children lived in high-poverty neighborhoods where daily necessities such as sufficient food and shelter were uncertain—creating a level of stress that would be enough to drive anyone to clamp down.

“I’m Indian, and grew up visiting India, so I was used to seeing the effects of poverty,” she says. “But to see it so close to home—right here in our country—didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to do something.”

Yoga had long been a part of her life, so she began to offer simple movement and breathing exercises during classes. Her students responded favorably and immediately. Patel noticed that after just a few minutes of practice, they became calmer, more focused, even kinder to each other.

When Patel and her husband relocated in 2010 to Northeast Ohio (where they’d both grown up), she decided to devote herself full-time to bringing yoga to low-income and disadvantaged children. That meant focusing on schools in the city, where more than half of all kids live below the poverty line and nearly two in 10 public school students report being suicidal.

Now in its seventh year, her non-profit company ZENWorks Yoga employs a network of teachers who offer free yoga classes in 20 Cleveland Municipal School District schools and one charter school. For the 2017-18 school year, ZENWorks will work with more than 1,000 students each week from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Patel finds that kids respond to yoga differently based on their age levels. Through third grade, they’re excited, open, happy to be trying something new. That enthusiasm often screeches to a halt during the middle school years, when kids enter adolescence and “don’t like anything,” she says with a laugh.

Even then, the most resistant tend to warm to the practice after seeing their peers doing warrior poses, downward dogs, and—most tantalizing of all—lying down on the floor for final relaxation. "A lot of the kids love rest pose because they’re so tired,” Patel says.

The CMSD classes are funded by a combination of grants, donations, and revenue from programming at community organizations and corporations. The East 4th and Yoga series in downtown Cleveland also helps subsidize the cost of the school programs.

Patel also helms a related startup, amaZEN U, that allows teachers to access yoga and mindfulness videos online for a monthly or annual fee.

“We’re providing a tool,” she says. “We can’t take away the traumas kids are dealing with, we can’t solve hunger, but we can give them tools for coping.”

Among those tools are deep breathing techniques to moderate strong emotions, movement sequences to improve energy, and new forms of self-talk to foster self-compassion. 

Looking forward, ZENWorks recently received a grant from The Cleveland Foundation to expand its organizational capacity and programming, and to partner with a local university to study the efficacy of the program on a range of factors including kids’ behavior and grades.

In the meantime, Patel says she’s more than convinced of the program’s effectiveness. She now has a waitlist of schools that want classes. Even more encouraging are the personal transformations she’s witnessed in students. One little girl in a special education class had a tendency to “shut down” during school, becoming quiet and withdrawn. After starting yoga, the girl began checking yoga books out of her local library so she could practice at home.

“She’d come in beaming with pride and ask when we were coming back,” Patel says. “It’s things like that that tell me we’re having an impact.”

Read more articles by Justin Glanville.

Justin Glanville is a freelance writer and urban planner. He loves exploring cities in general and Cleveland in particular, telling the stories of people in their places. He lives in industrial-natural borderland between Tremont and Ohio City with his dog Vinny. He likes friends. You can find him on his website