It’s after lunch in 1990 Butler graduate Lisa Gundaker’s kindergarten/first-grade class at the IPS/Butler University Laboratory School, and that means it’s time for downward-facing dog, star pose, and tree position.
She turns off the lights and puts on a recording of forest sounds—crickets chirping, birds calling.
“Take a deep breath in,” she instructs. “Lower your arms and let your breath out.”
Most of her 20 or so students, who have scattered around the room, stretch and balance themselves silently as their teacher leads them through various yoga moves. Some curl up with little stuffed animals they call “breathing buddies” and rest quietly.
“Think about your day,” she says as she walks around the room spraying a lavender/peppermint mist. “Think about one positive thing that’s happened today.”
For these 10 minutes, a quiet calm takes over the room.
The yoga exercises Gundaker leads in her classroom are replicated daily throughout the Lab School—and have been since the elementary school reopened five years ago as a partnership between the Indianapolis Public Schools and Butler. The idea is to relieve stress, to give the students a chance to move purposefully, and teach them how to calm down and focus.
“It gives them a time to be by themselves,” Gundaker says later. “We’re together, we’re together, we’re together. We’d just come back from recess and lunch. My thinking about adding yoga to quiet times is that children learn to slow down and reflect. They get to know themselves better and they can take it home too.”
Yoga at the Lab School started when Heather Williams, then the administrative assistant, saw that some classrooms were struggling to stay focused. She started in one classroom and soon was in all of them. As the Lab School grew—it started with kindergarten and first grade and has added a grade every year—so did Williams’ responsibilities.
Today, her title is Yoga Instructor/Researcher, and she’s paid, in part, from a three-year, $150,000 grant from PNC Bank, a major supporter of the Lab School.
“PNC’s signature philanthropic cause is early childhood education, which is supported through its Grow Up Great program,” PNC Senior Vice President Jeff Kucer said. “The Lab School was a perfect fit for us.”
Williams said the yoga program’s positive effects can be seen in students across the school. For some, like Ella, a student in Gundaker’s class, yoga is fun.
“I like yoga,” she says, “because it kind of makes you relax sometimes and it makes you focus. And it feels good.”
For others, yoga is vital. Williams tells the story of a Lab School student who has lost both parents to murder. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken kid, but when he gets worked up, no one can seem to quite get him back down, she said. They’ve done yoga together, and the boy’s grandmother has told Williams that he will go home and do the exercises on his own.
“There is a ton of scientific research backing up yoga, breathing, and mindfulness—how it not only helps academically but also with life skills,” she said. “Now there are a lot more people taking it seriously and doing the research on it to back that up. If you’re going to teach someone academics but you don’t teach them how to deal with emotions or teach them life skills, then you’re not teaching the whole child. If they don’t know how to deal with their inner struggles, it’s going to affect them one way or another.”