When Mary Casey, a teacher at Ballinora National School in Co Cork, arranged for a yoga teacher to visit her class, she wasn't sure what to expect.
Yoga or relaxation techniques had been recommended by several educational psychologists involved in assessing students in the class.
“The kids really enjoyed it. The first week the boys were a bit giggly, but they got used to it,” says Casey.
She also noticed the students that weren’t normally sporty performed particularly well. “They were really shining out,” she says.
The yoga teacher came for a six-week block and soon Casey observed the benefits extend beyond the yoga mat and into the classroom.
“I found for the rest of the day they were much calmer, and it helped their concentration,” she explains. “ It was great for overall well-being as well as their flexibility.”
The children at Ballinora National School are part of a growing cohort of pupils at primary school for whom yoga is now a core part of the school day.
At a time when anxiety levels among pupils are on the rise, many teachers are seeing the benefits first hand in the classroom.
These observations are supported by recent research carried out at Trinity College Dublin's Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute.
The study – jauntily titled The Yogi Masters Were Right: Breathing Exercises Can Sharpen Your Mind – explains the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.
It also states that breathing exercises, such as those practised in yoga, can help reduce anxiety during exams and increase concentration and focus.
Students at Ballinora National School aren’t the only ones incorporating yoga into their school day.
But some are choosing to approach the mat in different ways. Many arrange “taster” sessions during active or wellness weeks that run in the school during the year. Others are choosing to dedicate more time to the practice.
It's not always easy to find the space to do yoga in the classroom. But at Scoil Áine in Raheny, primary school teacher Caitríona Cosgrave has come up with a neat solution: chair yoga.
The students in her class use their chairs to practise a range of yoga poses.
“We use the chair as a prop instead of using a mat. We can do postures like downward dog, as well as a lot of side stretches and mini sun salutations,” says Cosgrave. “I take regular yoga postures and adapt them for the chair.”
Cosgrave, who has been teaching for 20 years, recently introduced yoga into her classroom and soon noticed the positive impact the practice is having upon her students.
“Initially they found it difficult, stillness is difficult for them but soon I noticed the calming effect it was having on students with high anxiety,” she explains.
Cosgrave also noticed that yoga appealed to students that were not drawn to traditional sports. “It was attractive to those who were not normally physically active,” she says.
Such are the benefits of yoga that Fine Gael senator Jerry Buttimer has recently called for it to be included on the primary school curriculum.
At a time when mindfulness and wellbeing are becoming central features of the classroom, including yoga might seem like a logical progression.
However, a challenge for schools is where to fit in yoga into the school day at a time when many feel a sense of “initiative overload”.
Some educators say any formal attempt to find a place for it in the school day is, well, a bit of a stretch.
Cosgrave, however, says it is a natural fit with some existing subjects. She has been involved in devising a programme for teaching children yoga with Yoga Therapy Ireland.
She advised them on the realities of the primary school curriculum and where, she believed, yoga would be best placed within it.
“At the moment I do it during Social Personal Health Education (SPHE) and I use it during warm up and cool down exercises in PE”, says Cosgrave.
The time allocations for subject areas in the primary school curriculum are currently being reviewed and Cosgrave, who also lectured in PE for more than a decade, is advocating an increase in the time allocated to the subject.
“We want PE time to be doubled and perhaps then we could incorporate yoga into the PE curriculum,” she says.
Casey also believes yoga touches on both SPHE and PE in the curriculum as it stands.
“I definitely think there is a place for it but I guess time will tell as to whether it will be introduced formally.”
Some educators who are familiar with demands of curriculum reform and the expertise needed to deliver yoga properly say making it mandatory is easier said than done.
Modifying the curriculum can be costly. The oral language curriculum has recently been overhauled in primary schools, and the cost of paying the salaries for the team of advisors from 2015-2019 is estimated to have come in at more than €11 million.
That bill does not factor in the cost of training teachers and facilitators or producing and distributing materials.
Some schools have also objected to facilitating yoga in their schools on religious grounds and are uncomfortable promoting a practice that has its roots in Hinduism.
There is also the question of whether yoga is a subject that can be taught by all primary school teachers.
While Yoga Therapy Ireland offers a weekend course for teachers on how to teach yoga to kids, they ask that the participants have experience and an interest in yoga before they take part.
Casey agrees that a primary school teacher might not be best placed to teach yoga in school. “I go to yoga myself, but I wouldn’t be confident enough to teach it to the kids.”
Mary Kelly is a yoga teacher and has been teaching yoga to both adults and children for seven years.
She runs after-school classes for primary school children as well as teaching six-week blocks in various schools in Cork. She says that who teaches yoga is just as important as the practice itself.
“You can only teach yoga from experience,” says Kelly. “If a teacher who has no interest in yoga tries to teach yoga, it’s just not going to come across as authentic.”
She also points out that yoga for kids is not a carbon copy of a yoga class for adults.
“There’s not a huge difference in terms of the aim but the way you would teach the class is different,” explains Kelly. “Kids’ classes would be a lot more playful.”
While Kelly teaches yoga during school time when requested, she believes it may be more beneficial as an after-school initiative.
“I think after school is one of the best ways to go for it because it’s the child’s and parent’s choice. It’s amazing to see how far they come on – physically, emotionally and mentally,” says Kelly.
Relaxation in the classroom: other techniques to calm schoolchildren
Mindfulness: Many schools are using the techniques of "living in the moment" to reduce stress, as well as "breathing bells, vision boards, mind jars, calm boxes and wishing trees".
Meditation: A variety of different meditation practices are being used in schools which teachers say is helping pupils to soothe and reassure their anxieties and stress.
Pilates: Some schools are using Pilates as both a calming tool and to make up for missed early developmental milestones. This can often be linked to being in buggies for too long or growing up without sufficient space to run around and explore.