Healing from the inside out: Bennington School uses yoga, tai chi to help students
BENNINGTON -- The Bennington School, a local youth development organization catering primarily to traumatized children and teens, has this year integrated yoga and tai chi into its everyday curriculum with hopes of healing students from the inside, out.
Clinical Director Lee Gallagher, who spearheaded the introduction of yoga to Bennington School students, became interested in the discipline herself, about five years ago.
"Research at that time was showing that yoga and other types of mind/body practices were very effective and helpful for children and adolescents," she explained, noting that a collaboration between a local yoga studio and the school two years ago offered the opportunity for students to begin practicing yoga off-site as an elective.
It was during that same time that Gallagher decided to retain her own teaching certification at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Mass.
Gallagher later broadened her certification to include a specialization in trauma-sensitive yoga -- a method of teaching, she explained, tailored specifically for individuals who have endured some sort of trauma -- physical or emotional, or both.
It is this specific method of instruction that has been fully embodied into both the school's academic and residential programs, with help from local yoga instructor Ali Wassick and Bennington School clinical psychologist Dr. Laurae Colburn.
Together, the trio of yogis offers trauma-sensitive yoga classes to both male and female students on a regular basis -- on and off campus.
According to Gallagher, the elements of trauma sensitive yoga center around the idea of students having complete control over their bodies.
"The students always have a choice," she said. "If (a student) has been hurt, they haven't been able to have a choice, so other yoga classes wouldn't work for them."
Gallagher said in "normal" yoga classes, teachers will offer cues throughout the sequence of postures, such as, "raise your right hand, raise your right foot," and will offer "assists" or physical adjustments.
"All of those things can be very difficult for people that aren't in a place to fully trust," Gallagher said, noting that trauma-sensitive classes are designed to respect and acknowledge the past circumstances of each student, whatever they may be.
"In a traditional trauma-sensitive yoga class, there are no physical assists," she continued. "The yoga teacher tends to stay on the mat so the students feel very safe around their space -- that they're going to be okay as they begin to use their body as they choose."
Gallagher explained that instead of offering cues like, "raise your arms to the ceiling," cues in a trauma-sensitive class would direct students to raise their arms as high as they feel comfortable going.
"These modifications help the students learn that they can befriend their body again, that they can use this (yoga) for their own resource, as we all do, in a safe way," she said. "(This type of yoga) is a mix of really listening to our children, allowing them to experience their body in a healthy way, and being able to teach them to use that as a method to negotiate the world."
Gallagher recalled numerous occasions when students expressed their love for yoga, and, in some cases, referred to it as a necessity.
"I was talking one day to a student who'd been practicing yoga for about six or seven months. She was beginning to have new things in her life which were creating some stress," Gallagher said, "So, we were talking about what she could do about that and she told me, ‘I have to do yoga at least once a week because it really calms me down.'"
Gallagher followed up with another anecdote about a student who, while she was present during classes, chose often to not physically participate.
"For about 12 weeks, she was there listening, but not moving her body," Gallagher said. "Then one day, after a long period of time, she raised her hand and asked to teach a pose. She got up in front of the class and she taught the eagle pose, which is quite complicated. It really just goes to show that some children need that extra time to prepare and really feel that trust before being able to move."
Ralph Bennett, the school's director of operations, said he believes integrating yoga into the curriculum has provided students with an additional means to self-regulate, or control impulses.
To aid in this process, the school also has several designated "peace rooms," or quiet spaces to which students can retreat if they're feeling overwhelmed and need a quiet space to think or calm down.
"(Yoga) is another teaching mechanism that they can use," he said. "When things get crazy, they can go into a pose or just take a breath, and they can always ask to go into one of the peace rooms. A lot of the kids just need that minute to breathe, and they tell us, too."
According to Gallagher, studies have shown that individuals who take one yoga class a week for 10 weeks reap therapeutic benefits.
"I make sure we have 10-week sequences and then sometimes children want to continue practicing after that," she said, noting that an average of 25 students -- girls only, this semester -- attend classes taught between Wassick, Colburn and herself. That is about half of the school's enrollment.
Come January, Gallagher said a boy's yoga class group will begin.
According to Jeff Caron, the executive director of the non-profit which took over the Bennington School last year, Becket Family of Services, the Bennington School's holistic curriculum has begun translating across its sister schools.
"The clinical director at one of our schools in Plymouth (N.H.) is implementing a trauma-sensitive yoga group," he said.
Ever since she and her colleagues began offering daily yoga classes to students, Gallagher said she has seen considerable growth among them.
However, she explained that she believes the success stems not only from yoga but from the school's other offerings as well, including the newly-implemented Tai chi program.
David Wendling, who acts as the school's IT training coordinator, started teaching the ancient, Chinese martial art last spring.
Wendling said he has practiced Tai chi for about nine years but only recently obtained his certification in "evidence-based" Tai chi -- a program developed by Dr. Yang Yang of the Center for Taiji (Tai chi) and Qigong Studies in New York City.
According to both Wendling and Gallagher, Tai chi, like yoga, can aid in alleviating depression and anything stress-related.
"Evidence-based and mindfulness-based practices like Tai chi and yoga allow for the nervous system to begin to start to regulate more effectively and the students in turn have a wider window of tolerance," Gallagher said. "So, when they're facing stressful things in their lives, their ability to ride that wave of emotion is broadened."
Gallagher explained that trauma, something most all of the students of the Bennington School have experienced, is often described as a disease of the nervous system.
"When you're traumatized, your nervous system goes into overdrive," she said. When people are living in places in which they have to face those types of events over and over again, they're living in a very aroused stress spot. After a while, that state of stress becomes a trait of the body."
Wendling, who offers classes as frequently as his yogi counterparts, explained that the "slowness" associated with the tai chi and qigong (an ancient Chinese practice similar to tai chi) help students to create a moment to reflect and think, and essentially rid the body of that stressed trait.
"Our kids are very anxious," he said. "Tai chi just slows things down. It puts our kids in a nice frame of mind where they can relax, learn how to control their breathing, learn to control their bodies and move through the day a little easier," he continued. "It also gives them something to do when they start feeling anxious, they can use what they've learned to calm down."
In an effort to solidify the implementation of yoga and tai chi at the Bennington school, staff has worked to convert a building formerly utilized as office space into a yoga studio.
According to Gallagher, the space, which is set to be completed by next week, will provide a designated, peaceful place for students to unwind and practice yoga and tai chi.
"We really believe in what we're doing here," Bennett said. "Now instead of teaching these classes at different places around school or going off site, it can be done in one place. We're really excited about it."
In January, Wendling said he plans to teach four times a week in the new studio and hopes to start teaching community classes for adults, too, as does Gallagher, who noted that she plans to hold an open house for the community to check out the new space that means so much to her within the next month or so.
"I'm so deeply touched by the building of this yoga studio," Gallagher said. "It just means that everyone that works here has come together to be open to an explore ways to help our children with their world and their life and are open to all those possibilities and directions. It means a lot."
Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.
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