Bethesda Magazine

Breathing Lessons

How local schools are turning to yoga and mindfulness to help stressed-out students learn to relax
Walter Johnson High School offers yoga classes throughout the school day.

Scroll down to view the highlighted paragraphs on McLean School’s Mindfulness Program. 

a wall of large windows in the dance studio at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda as about 30 students try to follow yoga teacher Janice Cornell’s lead and stretch their bodies into a warrior pose.
“When you’re ready, stay tall and rocket to your right. Right hand down, left leg up, left arm up,” Cornell says. Barefoot and dressed in gray patterned leggings and a fitted quarter-zip pullover, she moves around the room, helping one student raise her leg and repositioning the arms of another.

Getting students to focus can be a challenge in the early-afternoon class—Cornell often raises her voice to compete with the loud music and the sound of bouncing basketballs emanating from the gymnasium next door. Still, her students are silent as they listen intently to Cornell’s instructions for the next pose.

The teens had drifted into the room minutes ago, slipping off flip-flops, sneakers and moccasins by the door and bypassing the cloth shoe caddy hanging on the wall where they’re supposed to deposit their cellphones. They grabbed mats, blankets and round yoga pillows that are stored in cubbyholes. Spreading the brightly colored mats on the floor in three long rows, the students—all girls except for one boy—chatted as they waited for class to start.

When Cornell begins speaking, the students place their phones on the floor, just inches from their mats, and stand up. Dressed in a variety of leggings, yoga pants, shorts and sweatpants, all strive to achieve the first pose, some wobbling as they lift a leg high, and then their arms.

Once the students master the pose, Cornell guides them through others before announcing it’s time for savasana—the corpse pose. Instantly, the students recline on their backs on the mats, arms at their sides with palms upward and legs bent at the knees over the pillows. Several quickly drape themselves in striped woven blankets. Nearly all close their eyes. Most remain still, and many appear to fall asleep. Savasana is her students’ favorite pose, Cornell says, because it is the one time during the school day when they can truly relax and not worry about assignments or grades.

“You’ve got a good 10 minutes. You don’t have anything to do or anywhere to be,” she tells them in a soothing voice. “Close those eyes, let them feel nice and heavy. Let everything go. Just let yourself drift off.”

freshman Molly Benson, a 45-minute yoga class offers a respite from long days that include a heavy load of honors courses and as many as three hours of swim practice after school. “A lot of other classes are high pressure, and I worry about grades,” says Benson, who takes another of Cornell’s classes that’s designed for athletes and includes more strenuous activities. “I get to just forget about that for a while.”

Fans of yoga have long known about its potential to strengthen the body while improving emotional balance, and a small but growing body of research suggests that yoga can also help kids. A 2012 study of secondary school students who took an 11-week yoga course instead of a regular physical education (PE) class suggested that yoga has “the potential of playing a protective or preventive role in maintaining mental health,” according to results published in The Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research. An increasing number of private and public schools in the area have come to recognize the benefits of teaching yoga and mindfulness meditation—the ability to be totally present in the moment by focusing on breathing—to help students remain centered and handle the stress in their lives.

At Walter Johnson, students can choose between a regular yoga class and the version designed for athletes. More girls than boys sign up for yoga, though Janice Cornell’s class for athletes is about half boys.

Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda introduced mindfulness into its classrooms a few years ago and has since offered lessons to staff to help them relax. The practice also has begun filtering down to the high school’s feeder schools: Thomas W. Pyle Middle School offers an after-school yoga and mindfulness program sponsored by the PTSA, and Bradley Hills and Burning Tree elementary schools are introducing mindfulness practices.

Yoga teachers say the classes provide an oasis for students, a place where they can set aside, even for just a short while, the academic and social pressure to keep up with their peers. More girls than boys often sign up for the class, though Cornell’s class for athletes is about half boys.

“Just the practice of yoga, being able to stop and think about your breath and your movement, helps hone your focus for other aspects of your life, whether it’s academics or another sport,” says Michelle Deleo, a PE teacher who has taught yoga for 15 years at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville. “You need to learn to deal with stress, and this is one safe and athletic way to do it.”

Yoga is offered as a semester-long PE elective in some Montgomery County public high schools; the class is often taught by PE teachers, and sometimes by teachers of other subjects who become certified as yoga instructors. Students are graded on their knowledge of anatomy and a progressive series of poses, and class participation can also be a factor. Some schools, including Pyle and the Bullis School in Potomac, offer yoga outside of school hours. Bullis students can take an after-school course that runs from mid-December until March and includes mindfulness lessons and activities.

About 350 Wootton students are taking yoga in the current school year, Deleo says. Students often sign up for the elective during their freshman year to fulfill the PE requirement—all public high school students have to take a year of PE—and then take the class again later. Walter Johnson, which has been offering yoga for a decade or so, has seen student interest explode in recent years. The school filled two sections of the course during the first couple years, and now offers a class during every period of the school day. Nearly 280 students are taking yoga this year—another 450 were turned away because classes were filled. Students can choose between a regular class and the version designed for athletes.
Yoga classes fill up quickly at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where most sections have between 30 and 35 students.

Cornell and PE teacher Shelli Hill, who also teaches yoga, believe interest has grown because students find yoga to be a fun and relaxing elective that doesn’t place mental demands on them and fits the needs of those who aren’t interested in more physically active gym classes. Several of Cornell’s students said the class was recommended by friends.
“We encourage them to take it multiple times if they can fit it in their schedule,” Hill says.

Walter Johnson senior Maria Mills, who says she was “a really anxious teen,” first took yoga as a freshman to fulfill the PE requirement and help relieve the pressure of taking advanced classes and keeping up with classmates. It wasn’t a natural fit at first. “Especially the first times when we were really relaxing, I couldn’t do it. I would just walk out—it was just horrible. But after a while it really helped,” says Mills, who is taking yoga again this year.

Below: Inspiring handwritten messages are taped to the walls in the room where students take yoga.

in Potomac, students say practicing mindfulness is as much a part of the school day as going to class. The private school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade began incorporating mindfulness techniques and yoga into the day about four years ago as part of its comprehensive wellness program, and now offers a six-week series of mindfulness classes for parents twice a year.

By incorporating lessons ranging from “mindfulness minutes” at the start of class to morning yoga exercises and activities taught by a part-time mindfulness educator, McLean hopes to instill the practice in its students so that it becomes as natural as breathing, says Frankie Engelking, the school’s director of student and community wellness. Beginning in kindergarten, she says, students “may have as many as four or five opportunities in any given day to do some form of mindfulness exercise, whether it’s breathing, visualizing, a gratitude exercise or mindful coloring.”

One afternoon in mid-October, several middle schoolers are gathered in a school office to talk about their experiences with various aspects of mindfulness, including “heartfulness,” which means to send kind thoughts to another person. Sixth-grader Jacob Kolton says he finds that heartfulness comes in handy when another student makes fun of him or what he’s wearing. “Sometimes I put myself on their side,” he says. “Maybe they have something that’s going on at home, and that’s just a way for them to vent their feelings. So I’ll just do some mindfulness and just forgive them.”
He also appreciates when his teacher takes a few minutes for mindfulness before a test, asking students to think positive thoughts, such as focusing on something they might be looking forward to. “It’s a way to relieve all your stress—and during mindfulness, when everyone’s quiet, you can hear the quietest sounds, like the clock ticking,” he says.

Ellie Dadgar, a sixth-grader who plays on a school volleyball team, often practices mindfulness to get rid of nervousness before a game. “I take a mindful minute before I go onto the court,” she says. “I take a couple seconds to breathe and get all my thoughts together so I can focus and have my head in the game.”

For sixth-grader Annabella Zoslow, mindfulness helped reduce her anxiety when she and a classmate were appearing in Super Hero Support Group, a school play performed last fall. “It was extremely scary. We didn’t want to mess up and let everyone down,” she says. Before going onstage, “mindfulness was really, really helpful because I could take a few breaths and remember my line. It really helped me calm down for the play, and the play went really well.”

JOY DAWSON, WHO TEACHES yoga at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, says she hopes that practicing yoga and mindfulness will help her students gain a greater appreciation of themselves and an ability to see the bigger picture, rather than getting caught up in the minutiae and distractions of their daily lives. At first, some students think they are wasting time by doing nothing but focusing on their breathing, she says, but they soon begin to understand the concepts.

Yoga instructor Joy Dawson starts her classes at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School by asking students to place their mats in a circle, inches from their neighbor.

“With this mindfulness thing, sometimes people are just shocked that they are never awake and not doing anything,” she says. “So it’s such a weird feeling for them to be so present and so self-aware. That shift is really fun for me as a teacher to watch.”

On a mid-October morning, Dawson begins her first-period class by welcoming her students in a calming voice in the dimly lit basement gymnasium. The room exudes serenity as instrumental music plays in the background. “We are going to be connecting in our attempt to open our hearts and invite loving-kindness into our lives, so mats should be about 3 to 6 inches apart,” Dawson tells her students.

The 25 students quickly place their mats in a circle, each just inches from their neighbor. At the center of the circle is a ring of LED-powered tea lights that adds a peaceful glow to the room. Dozens of inspiring messages handwritten on sheets of white paper—some with colorful drawings—are taped to the walls. “When it rains, look for rainbows; when it’s dark, look for stars,” one reads.

Following Dawson’s instruction, the students sit with their legs crossed, each girl forming a lotus flower by spreading her fingers and connecting her thumbs and index fingers. “Maybe we’re at the bud stage,” Dawson says, “but with light and movement, we’re going to bloom into a flower.” Later, she turns on light drum music that increases to a faster beat as the students move more quickly through several poses. As the class winds down, it’s time for savasana, and Dawson’s students immediately recline on the mats.

When class ends, the students gather their things to leave as Dawson turns off the music. Heading to second period, junior Briana Jeter explains that the early-morning class helps her throughout the school day. “It calms me down,” she says. “It’s not only a physical thing—it’s a mental thing.”

Click here to read the origional article on Bethesda Magazine's website.

Julie Rasicot of Silver Spring is the managing editor of Bethesda Magazine’s online daily news briefing, Bethesda Beat. To comment on this story, please email

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