Yoga Helps Kids in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Yoga in school helps some of Vancouver's most disadvantaged students learn critical coping skills

Credit: Tanya Chernov

Besides building their confidence, concentration and connection to self, yoga teaches children to listen to their bodies, still their minds, challenge themselves, and encourage one another

One of the poorest postal codes in BC has turned to yoga to help kids cultivate physical and emotional well being

According to Grade 1/2 teacher Janice Parry, once the school year kicks off, it isn’t unusual for students to come to Admiral Seymour Elementary School, located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, hungry, under-dressed and ill equipped to concentrate.

“We’re dealing with a range of issues every day, from kids who haven’t eaten breakfast to children without socks to students who have a difficult home life, ESL needs or learning, anxiety and attention-deficit disorders,” she says. “You try to get them to focus and it’s hard. Some can’t even grasp what you mean by the word ‘focus’; they don’t understand why it’s so crucial not only to learning, but to coping with life in general.”

Having identified the problem years earlier, Parry implemented MindUP — an initiative by actress Goldie Hawn’s foundation — into her curriculum in 2005. The program includes strategies and skills for students that are meant to cultivate well-being and emotional balance.

“It’s a way to teach the kids how to focus their minds and take a moment to calm down and reflect on a situation when they need to make a choice,” she explains. “These are tangible tools they can pull out and use: knowledge of how their brains work, mindful breathing exercises and basic yoga postures that, in getting them to hold their balance, develop their ability to concentrate.”

(Image: Tanya Chernov)

Parry, who has been doing yoga for more than a decade, knows through personal experience how powerful — and potentially life changing — the ancient Indian discipline can be.

“Coming from 12 years of practice, I can really see how much I’ve changed,” she says. “Now, thanks to instructors … who are willing to donate their free time to come and teach us yoga for half an hour, I’m seeing the same positive shifts occurring in my kids.”

Volunteer Yoga Teachers Make All the Difference

Enter Tanya Chernov, an instructor at Bikram Yoga Vancouver. Come September, she’ll volunteer in Parry’s classroom once a week for 30 minutes, teaching yoga to the six- and seven-year-old students.

Each session starts with the kids unrolling their yoga mats (adult-sized castoffs cut in half) on the floor. Chernov then leads them through a series of modified postures. She says the improvement she sees from week to week is remarkable.

“Every week they can do a little more and a little more,” she smiles. “They’re excited, engaged and respectful of each other. Whenever we do a demo class, where each one gets up and does their best pose, kids who won’t even speak at first are begging me to let them show what they can do.”

(Image: Tanya Chernov)

As she and Parry watch children who were once shy, nervous or disengaged proudly demonstrate triangle, tree, cobra and other postures to their peers, Chernov snaps photos so the kids can see how much they have accomplished.

Besides building their confidence, concentration and connection to self, Parry says the yoga teaches the children to listen to their bodies, still their minds, challenge themselves and learn from, encourage and help each other.

“These are lessons they can take with them when they leave the classroom,” she says. “Any time you arm kids with strategies to cope, you’re enhancing and improving their lives. To these children, yoga is a very special gift.”

Chimes for Children

Donations are gratefully accepted at Admiral Seymour School. For just $10 you can help purchase a chime for use during the children’s mindful-breathing exercises. Please make cheques payable to “Admiral Seymour School,” and indicate that you’d like the donation to go toward the “Chimes for Children Fund.” Donations may be mailed to the school at 1130 Keefer Street, Vancouver, B.C., V6A 1Z3.