Space to breathe, move and reflect

Margie Muñoz practices yoga with eighth-graders Gio Mendoza, Dave Hill, and Shawn McClerkin

Margie Muñoz led three eighth-graders through the halls of the middle school, down a winding staircase and into a windowless basement classroom. Once inside, she flipped open her laptop and started some relaxing music as students Dave Hill, Shawn McClerkin and Gio Mendoza kicked off flip-flops and tennis shoes and took a seat on a yoga mat.

After a quick “check-in,” during which two of the boys shared that they were feeling “cloudy” due to upcoming tests and other worries, Muñoz began.

“Breathe in… and out. In… and out. Child’s pose… down dog.”

Over the next 40 minutes, Dave, Shawn and Gio followed along as Muñoz led them through a series of yoga poses, breathing exercises and a meditation. Shawn requested a pose called “Warrior 1,” and at some point Dave rattled off the sequence along with her.

“Up dog, down dog, left foot forward. Warrior 1, warrior 2, plank and hold… ”

This is Room 301, “the dungeon,” Muñoz jokes. Last year it housed the Restorative Thinking Center, a place for students with behavioral challenges to regroup. When the center moved to a bright upstairs room, Muñoz, community school coordinator for Kent School Services Network, saw potential in the dimly-lit space. Now it’s a yoga studio.

Eighth-graders Gio Mendoza and Dave Hill relax during a meditation

A Tranquil Space

Muñoz says she has long been interested in the effects of yoga and meditation on children. She introduced the concept at her previous job as a direct care counselor at D.A. Blodgett – St. John’s home. There, she said, she saw how it relaxed some of the children in her care.

“Negative behaviors were learned somewhere and positive, calming behaviors can be learned as well.” — Godwin Heights Middle School Principal Bradley Tarrance

Muñoz has practiced yoga on and off for about 10 years, and every day for the past two years. When the Grand Rapids studio where she practices offered a lesson on how to use yoga and meditation with children, she jumped at the opportunity. Then, with the support of Principal Bradley Tarrance, she got to work transforming the room, decorating the space and reaching out to friends from the yoga studio, who donated nine mats.

“Negative behaviors were learned somewhere and positive, calming behaviors can be learned as well.” — Godwin Heights Middle School Principal Bradley Tarrance

“Kids want that space and want to be able to do that in the middle of their day,” she said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to offer that.”

The principal agrees.

“I was ecstatic when Margie brought up yoga to help our children with reflection techniques and calming techniques,” said Tarrance, who had seen success after implementing something similar at a school in Texas. “I love that Margie can share her love and the benefits of yoga with our children.”

Dave Hill moves into a yoga pose

Training the Brain

These days, Muñoz keeps a spare set of clothing in her office to quickly change from professional attire into yoga gear. She said she uses the space with students daily, sometimes multiple times a day.

Currently, she targets students with challenges in the classroom or who are experiencing conflict with their peers. Sometimes asking students to do yoga together for a week, she said, can help them rebuild relationships.

Muñoz said yoga helps students reconnect with the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for, among other things, judgment and self-control.

“Kids don’t like to get in trouble,” she said. “It’s hard for them to sit in the classroom for seven hours. They want to do well in school; they just don’t have that control because they’re developing, and that’s where they are in that development.”

Giving them a little time and space to breathe, move and reflect, she said, can be just what they need to return to class and focus on learning.

Margie Muñoz, community school coordinator at Godwin Heights Middle School, leads a yoga session

“When we realize as educators that everything is learned, we have to be able to rethink how we address behavior,” Tarrance said, “Negative behaviors were learned somewhere and positive, calming behaviors can be learned as well.”

Muñoz is still tweaking what use of the room will look like, long-term. Many students have shown an interest in participating, she said. One thing is certain: the students who currently practice in the space approve.

“I like that it can keep you relaxed when you’re having a rough day,” Dave said. It was only his second session, but he said he was already looking forward to the next one.

Shawn agreed.

“Whenever you have a bad day, you can just come down here, let it out, and then you can go back to class and you don’t have to think about it.”

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio.

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