Getting A’s in namaste

Cranbrook students find mindfulness during yoga classes

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 12, 2014

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — In Lisa Ballo’s classroom at Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School, students staying put in their seats is highly discouraged.

Since 2012, Ballo — the owner of Belightful Yoga mobile yoga studio — has been teaching students at the boys and girls middle schools and developing a curriculum tailored for the two groups.

“Cranbrook is very refreshing and progressive and open in their thinking,” said Ballo. “They had a dynamic movement class already in place, which covered yoga, and then the teacher had moved and I had taken over. Now it’s almost more about breathing exercises, movement and mindfulness. It’s more about empowering the child to be their authentic self and honoring where the child is at and really letting them be that, and (the class is) an expression of themselves.”

Ballo’s mobile studio takes her all over metro Detroit, from corporate employees taking a yoga class on their lunch break to senior citizen classes at community centers. She also teaches classes designed for autistic children and their parents, and students with Down syndrome.

With so much experience creating custom yoga experiences, she was interested in what she would be able to do with the challenge of teaching middle school students to tune out the stress of teenage life.

“Some children have anxiety with taking a test, and when life gets challenging, oftentimes the first thing we do is we’ll hold our breath. So before they go take that test, can you teach them to stop and take three deep breaths to get grounded? They’re small things they can do throughout the day,” Ballo explained. “Or kids lose focus because their bodies are telling them to move, but their teachers are telling them to be still all day. Sometimes, it just takes a few stretches to get them refocused and bring them back to what they’re doing.”

Ballo said she gains inspiration for the curriculum from her own experience as a kid, asking herself what yoga and relaxation tools she wishes she’d had at that age to cope with being a student.

She’s become so in-tune to the needs of adolescents that she’s often invited to speak to educators across the country about incorporating yoga into school instruction. She was a featured speaker at the first-ever National Kids Yoga Conference in Washington, D.C., in September.

The effects of Ballo’s lessons aren’t lost on Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School’s administrators. Stacy Rivard, head of Middle School for Girls, said that Ballo’s class is part of a performing arts credit, but it benefits the students in so many areas.

“We’ve long known, particularly with children at this age, that movement is so important, not only to the learning process, but to wellness,” said Rivard. “Having that additional outlet during the day for students is beneficial, but the mindfulness and the breathing — how wonderful those skills are.”

She added that the class complements Cranbrook Kingswood’s overall philosophy of developing a whole child, and allowing students to express themselves academically, artistically, emotionally and physically.

Kurt Effinger, head of Middle School for Boys, said that while many schools these days are introducing physical education initiatives with yoga and other progressive exercises, Cranbrook is unique in that the middle school classes are separated by gender.

“Boys really are willing to do yoga when they’re in a class with other boys. They’re not as self-conscious. They can get more out of it at that age, and it might be less so if it were a mixed-gender class,” he said.

For Ballo, one of her favorite part of the classes is watching students help each other when lessons get tough.

“The root word of yoga is community, so if your classmate is struggling to stay focused, they really do think about how to help them. Or if there’s a posture that’s challenging, we talk about how can you breathe (and) get through it? Because life can be challenging — that’s the point of it. How can you breathe through it?”