(Photo by Miles Turner)
Perched on the stage at Chester Arthur Elementary in Graduate Hospital, a 7-year-old extends his arms toward the ceiling, wobbling on one foot. He and the rest of his class attempt tree pose for a few more seconds.
Ten miles north in Frankford, preteens roll out mats on the floor of the library at Warren G. Harding Middle School. As the building empties out at the end of the day, they start their weekly yoga practice.
Both schools make up an expanding network of sites hosting free yoga classes through Raja Yoga & Meditation Center, a Graduate Hospital-based yoga studio that converted to a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2015. Raja’s outreach program seeks to bring the practice to underserved populations across the city.
“I was noticing the narrow range of students that come to yoga,” said Wesley Tudor, Raja’s founder. “And yet, I know that the benefits of yoga are for everyone. I wanted to reach more people.”
With that in mind, Tudor started exploring venues where Raja might offer outreach courses.
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“Given that we have limited resources, I wanted to make the biggest strategic impact on society,” he said. “What occurred to me initially was to bring yoga to schools and prisons.” When Tudor discovered another nonprofit, Transformation Yoga Project, was already sharing yoga with inmates in the region, he decided to turn his focus to Philadelphia schools.
In Fall 2015, Raja began offering free yoga classes at Chester Arthur, just around the corner from the nonprofit’s brick and mortar studio.
“We decided to offer yoga at Arthur because we are aware from both research and personal experience of the positive mental and physical benefits of yoga for children and adults,” explained Chester Arthur counselor Megan Brigaman. “Yoga in school offers our students the opportunity to slow down, practice mindfulness and move their bodies. It also builds confidence and self esteem by allowing children to feel competent at something other than traditional academic domains.”
More than two years later, Raja continues to offer classes to second graders and middle schoolers at Chester Arthur, while extending its reach north to Jay Cooke Elementary and Harding Middle School. Tudor has recruited a team of dedicated instructors who visit the schools weekly, teaching yoga during and after school.
Miles Turner began teaching yoga at Jay Cooke in Spring 2017. He now teaches a regular after-school class to middle schoolers at Harding.
“As long as you get them to the room, it doesn’t matter what door they come through,” Turner said. “That’s why outreach is pivotal. If they had a push in Philadelphia for yoga as a subject, in a year there would be progress in all aspects of school.”
Brigaman has seen this progress at Chester Arthur in the form of fewer discipline referrals for students who attend yoga.
“The kids who have participated in the program have better coping skills and emotional regulation,” she noted.
Emma Connolly, a learning support teacher at Harding who first established ties with Raja, has only one regret: It’s not available to more students.
“With more funding, we could offer a class during the school day and get some of the kids who aren’t going to stay after school because of family obligations,” said Connolly.
Raja Yoga relies on donations to offer its outreach programs for free to participants and fundraises online and through a donations-based class held at the studio on Saturday mornings. Tudor hopes to expand outreach to more schools over time.
“If the funding is there, there’s no limit,” he said. “Every child in Philadelphia would get the mental and physical benefits of yoga that would help them for the rest of their lives.”
Citing recent research linking excess screen time with teen depression, Tudor added, “the modern technological age is fragmenting human attention in a very unhealthy way. Yoga and meditation are the ideal anecdote to this unique problem we’re having in modern society.”-30-
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