McVay Elementary teacher brings passion for yoga through new club

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The inaugural members of McVay Elementary’s Sunshine Yoga Club stepped into their weekly gathering spot Monday for their last practice of 2022.

McVay’s motor room, which also supports students who receive occupational and physical therapy during school, has been set for the club’s 30-minute session: Mats were laid out facing the front of the space. A projection of pink and purple lights flashed along one of the walls where a tapestry of roses hung. Two children’s books focused on yoga — “I Am Yoga” by Susan Verde and “Hello, Sun” by Sarah Jane Hinder — were on display nearby. 

At the center of the space was English Learners teacher Heather Lewis, who has led the weekly yoga sessions since launching the club last month. 

“The theme for today’s yoga practice is kindness,” she said to students. “We are celebrating who you are and being kind to yourselves.”

Lewis proposed starting a yoga club at McVay this year after leading a yoga series during the district’s Summer Ignite program, where Westerville educators and staff created sessions to connect with students on subjects they are interested in. Her week-long Summer Ignite session, which she led with her daughter and Minerva France Elementary fifth-grade teacher Audrey Lewis, introduced yoga to students who are not native English speakers.

For Lewis, who typically works with small groups of students on building their language skills, it was an exciting challenge to interact with students on a larger scale. During the Ignite week, she led daily yoga practices followed by games, music or crafts. The students’ response inspired her to bring a similar opportunity for students at McVay.

“The kids loved it and wanted to do more,” she said.

Lewis, like school counselors and various staff members across the district, has been trained by the Youth Yoga Project, a Columbus-based nonprofit that provides educators with tools, lessons and strategies to support students who need help managing their emotions and coping skills. 

She recently completed a certification to become a children’s yoga instructor through Yoga Ed. and plans to start a 200-hour training next month through Breathe for Change to become a certified yoga instructor for children and adults. 

Through yoga and mindfulness, Lewis hopes to instill skills to help students build their self-esteem, manage stress, approach challenges and help them prioritize their mental and physical health.

“This is a great lesson to learn in an academic setting,” she said. “I want to plant seeds. Yoga isn’t about perfection; it’s about trying different things and experiences that they’ll want to learn more and continue to try.”

Through the Sunshine Yoga Club, Lewis sets the room with lights and backdrops. Students can choose from a variety of headbands to wear during their yoga practice and she plays energetic music to accompany their movements — all part of an effort to create a rich culture.

She focused Monday’s yoga practice on kindness, encouraging students to be kind to themselves and each other. She kicked off the session by having students work on their breathing.

“Whatever happened at lunch, let it go,” she told them. “Whatever was in class, let it go. Whatever was in the weekend, let it go.”

“Be present. Here and now.”

She led them through a series of postures, from sun salutation to tree pose. She had students create a forest with their tree poses and invited them to challenge themselves with a dancer pose, where they balanced on one leg while holding the other in the air.

Members of the Sunshine Yoga Club said they look forward to their weekly gatherings. Students say yoga has helped them relax and prepares them for the rest of the week.

“It brings out the calmer in me and I just like to relax,” fourth-grader Sophia Underwood said. “It makes me feel good because I have a lot of stuff going on in the week. It’s just a lot and it helps me.”