Chandra Jo Sgammato, the founder of the Yoga at School™ program developed by the Integral Yoga Institute of New York, shares the vision for the program and how it developed.

Teaching Yoga to schoolchildren was not new for the New York Integral Yoga Institute. In 2001, students from a nearby public school that didn’t have a gym came to the IYI for Yoga classes two mornings a week. That worked out very well, but, now the IYI was about to enter a whole new arena.

Yoga in Elementary School

In 2004, we received a call from Lutheran Hospital telling us that they had received a grant to use for enrichment in inner city schools in Brooklyn, where the hospital runs clinics. After 9/11, studies showed that New York city school kids were very stressed out. A consultant that Lutheran Hospital engaged to find some programs for these kids was interested in Yoga. She searched for Yoga schools and was so impressed by Integral Yoga’s longevity and reputation that she invited us to teach in the schools. We already had the Yoga at Work program for corporations and non-profit organizations which was a big success, so we thought: Why not develop a “Yoga at School” program?

Program for Pregnant Teens

New York City high schools have a program for pregnant teens that offers young, pregnant women the opportunity to obtain their high school diplomas. But in order to get a diploma, they must have some kind of physical education. Since the types of exercise these pregnant teens could do was limited, someone there got the idea of prenatal Yoga. In early 2005, we received a call from an administrator of the program, asking if we could deliver 54 prenatal Yoga classes in four different locations for their students. Again, Integral Yoga’s reputation made us the logical choice.

We were able to pull a program together within two weeks. We dispatched teachers to four locations in Manhattan where we offered a combination of prenatal and postpartum classes to girls aged 15-17. We sent our very best prenatal teachers to these schools to give classes four days a week. Not every one of the students came to class or got into it but those that did just loved it and the teachers loved doing it. Our teachers are so dedicated and I really think they made a difference in lives of their students. Some students came back for the postpartum classes and told us that the birth was easier because of the Yoga and the breathing practices they had learned. We offered this in 2005 and again for part of the year in 2006. But, there was no funding for the spring semester.

After witnessing the post 9/11 trauma and the huge incidence of asthma in New York’s kids, we realized that stress reduction for school kids in New York is essential. We decided to approach the Department of Education and it soon became clear that there was no budget for Yoga classes in the school system. Schools take a long time to get funding in order. So, our challenge has become to go out and find money. Swami Ramananda had the idea to apply to the Balm Foundation for a grant because they have been funding some of our therapeutic Yoga programs. The Foundation came through with a grant for $15,000 in early 2006.

A New Era for Phys Ed in New York City

The timing of this grant could not have been better. Since the 1970s and New York’s fiscal crisis, physical education programs in the schools had not been a priority. But now, Mayor Bloomberg was restructuring the department. The New York City Department of Education recognized that there had to be better physical education, due to the rise of obesity and diabetes in children. Competitive and sometimes violent sports turned kids off to exercise so the department was looking for options that promote lifelong wellness and love for physical fitness. Yoga fits right into that goal.

Armed with our grant, I got in touch with the one of the regional directors of the department. We decided to introduce the idea of Yoga at School by giving some “Introduction to Yoga” workshops during professional development days for teachers in the boroughs of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens. Our senior teachers taught Integral Yoga to more than one hundred and fifty New York City physical education teachers over the course of three days.

Our grant allowed us to give 150 free Yoga classes to the public schools. So, we invited the teachers who were the most interested to sign up for their school to receive some of these free classes. The response was so tremendous that we could only offer a series of six classes per school! As the program got underway, we had our IY teachers going out to the different boroughs during regular gym periods. Some of our teachers had to travel long distances and it was a real experience for them to go into the public schools, where there is sometimes a chaotic atmosphere (showing how much Yoga is needed!). It was challenging at times, but overwhelmingly heartwarming. I created an evaluation form that we gave to the students who took the classes. The responses were so beautiful, so inspiring. Here is a small sample:

“I felt relaxed and not as tense as I was before the class and it gives you a chance to stretch out your muscles.”
“It was fun, exciting and relaxing. I will love to have it again. Also, it helped me with my worries.”
“I felt good because, when I went there I felt bad; then when we finished I felt good.”
“The Yoga teacher was nice and she didn’t yell. If you did something wrong, she would walk over and help you. She told us never to give up and to try again.”
“It was the best time I ever had. Yoga is all about peace, no violence. I think it should happen again.”
“Yoga is not just about meditating, it is also another way to exercise and if it hurts, it means that you need to exercise more and you can do Yoga.”
“If you are mad or sad all you have to do is some Yoga.
“I really want to be in Yoga next year. It is fun and I really like to relax and feel peaceful. I hope we get it again.”

Yoga for Teachers

Teachers approached us in two of the schools in which we were teaching and said, “This is great for our students, but we want classes for us, too.” So, they organized Yoga classes for themselves and our teachers taught them at those schools. Since then, they have asked us to create a program to train physical education teachers to become Yoga teachers. Kali Morse, Swami Ramanandaji and I consulted with Satya Greenstone (head of Teacher Training at the Integral Yoga Academy in Yogaville) about how to teach TT to teachers who don’t really know much about Yoga, let alone practice Yoga. We came up with an idea to create a prerequisite program that would be a “Fundamentals of Hatha Yoga” course based on a course we offer in our program guide. That would be a way for teachers to learn the basics, take a lot of classes at the IYI as part of the program and then take TT. When we proposed the idea to the Department of Education they were very enthusiastic. They invited us to participate in a three-day professional development leadership program to further refine the plans.

It took us by surprise that this all came about. The response has been really gratifying. We’ve gotten such great feedback and they keep asking us to come back. We are now hearing, “We really need you in the middle schools and high schools,” so we hope to do more with kids of all ages. We are now an official vendor of the Department of Education. Our hope is to find more foundations that would like to give grants to help us continue to offer classes in the public school system. The more kids who do Yoga, the better our world will be.

We are grateful to have been so welcomed by the New York school system as we begin this wonderful relationship. We’re developing a model that hopefully could be used in any school system. It’s an honor for Integral Yoga to serve in this way and we feel that Swami Satchidananda’s love for children helps to guide us. We feel particularly qualified to bring Yoga to school children of all ages and levels of fitness because Integral Yoga believes Yoga is for everyone. Our gentle approach and style make it possible to practice Yoga from the time one is in the womb to old age. Not every Yoga school can say that.

About the Author:

Chandra Jo Sgammato is an Integral Yoga teacher and general manager of the New York Integral Yoga Institute. She also manages the Institute’s Yoga at Work® and Yoga at School ™ programs.