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Local instructor helps schools with yoga, meditation

March 10, 2019
BOTH PHOTOS: Jeannie Harrison, a local yoga instructor who is heading up a new program called Yoga EQ in schools, leads students in exercises February at Central City Elementary School in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — In Laura Blackman’s fourth-grade Talented and Gifted classroom at Central City Elementary School, the walls and floor are covered with fun, different ways to learn.

There’s the class bird, aquariums full of tadpoles, books everywhere and a white board with what sounds like fourth-grade fun, “Hands-On Fraction Action,” with games like ring toss and dominoes.

This year, Blackman’s class has made time and space for one more important thing to learn in a fun way — emotional intelligence.

Every Tuesday for an hour, local yoga instructor Jeannie Harrison, of Karma Yoga Institute, has been bringing her new Yoga EQ for Schools program to the class. Wearing “Cars” yoga pants and getting the kids in a circle, Harrison leads the kids into a series of active yoga poses as music plays.

“Star pose. Now give me your best laugh and take up space,” Harrison says as the kids laugh. “Show me your muscles. Now you’re a cat. ‘Meow.’”

Afterward, Harrison, who has been teaching yoga to those in recovery and in crisis for the past couple of years, has the students close their eyes, doing a guided meditation about being on a magic carpet ride, before ending the class with the students journaling and writing about what they want to be and positive ways to make that happen.

Inspiring confidence

Kennedy Schultz, 9, said she had never done yoga and meditation before Harrison taught it to her class.

“It makes me feel calm,” Schultz said of the weekly yoga and mindfulness session. “I think we have learned to be nicer to each other and have learned to be a team.”

Harrison said that kind of impact is what they are shooting for by sharing these techniques with young students at a critical age of development to help them process trauma in a safe setting, to reduce high-risk behavior, to calm and focus students, and to increase confidence and hone better decision-making skills.

“We begin by getting students in touch with their bodies and being introspective,” Harrison said. “A lot of students are often walking around as a brain in a body suit and they are not focused on what they are experiencing in their belly or their hands. So we get them in touch with their bodies, and they begin to notice that emotion is a physical sensation in the body and when they recognize that, they can energize what they are feeling in a given moment.”

Harrison said building on that awareness, she teaches positive emotional processing.

“We show students there are ways to process anger without hitting someone, and that you can energize yourself when you feel bored by a breathing technique or raise confidence by making your body bigger and then taking up more space,” she said. “Then we move on to empathy and engaged empathy and how to show up for other people, not only making friends but to support each other. Once you have an ability to process emotions, you can help others process theirs. I am also teaching responsible decision making. We teach the students how to tap into their internal motivation and what is driving you to make a decision. When you have that in your mind, you are more apt to make good decisions. Your willpower is heightened when you have that goal in mind.”

The impact of Yoga EQ

Blackman said that while everyone is a work in progress, she thinks taking time to learn these techniques for this age group (which is fourth grade, so about 10) is a real positive.

“She really talks about how to deal with your emotions and to not run away from it,” Blackman said. “I think in particular at this age, they are starting to become really self-conscious in front of others at this tween age. It is really important for them to acknowledge their emotions and to not let their emotions build up into something negative. So she has talked a lot about that and they have journaled about that. They close each day with journaling. So a lot of it has been how to be healthy with yourself and what are some ways we can deal with negative emotions that could be better for everyone in our lives and us.”

Blackman said her class is already getting along better, thinking more of others and learning how to use self-calming techniques.

“Even though we have counselors in schools and even though teachers help students deal with how to deal with emotions, we as a whole society don’t talk about how to deal with emotions enough,” Blackman said. “To me, this is a real positive.”

The journey to Yoga EQ for Schools

Harrison said this foray into teaching Yoga EQ for Schools began last year when Michelle Perdue, who was then in a prevention job with the United Way, was in a yoga class with Harrison and asked if Harrison, who was doing recovery yoga with her own GroHuntington program, had ever done yoga and meditation in schools.

The United Way funded a seven-school tour with Harrison last year, teaming up with like-minded elementary school teachers such as Meghan Salter at Martha Elementary and Angie Kinder at Nichols Elementary to start the program, which typically has been a five-week program.

This winter/spring Harrison is at Martha, Central City, Nichols and Explorer Academy, with more schools added including Buffalo in Putnam County, as Harrison has gotten support from a new partner, Prestera and Tim White, through the West Virginia Prevention Network. They are going to be launching Yoga EQ as a formal pilot program in a number of neighboring counties.

“At some of the schools, the series have kind of overlapped,” Harrison said. “We can either come into a school and do a one-off program for an hour, or what we prefer is a fiveclass series. What we started in the fall will be in Cabell, Putnam, Wayne and Kanawha counties. On top of that, a few Cabell County teachers have written small grants with Families Needing Change and Try This WV to get us into the classroom. If we run out of funding, teachers are finding ways to keep it going.”

Harrison said the natural fit for entry into the schools has been at the fourth-and fifth-grade levels. And because of her connections with receptive teachers, such as Salter, who regularly does yoga, Harrison started with the TAG groups in the county.

“These students are a little bit ahead of their peers in terms of what they are noticing and what they are seeing but not maybe in terms of emotional intelligence, so this is really setting them up for success,” Harrison said. “You have the kids that are high achievers that also will have a skill set in emotional intelligence.”

Harrison, who has taught all ages through the past several years, said 10-to 12-year-olds are receptive to learning to move and crave movement.

“What is really beautiful is that these kids are very open to things and there is so much energy, and any way to expel that energy they are happy to do,” Harrison said. “When they have the opportunity to get up and move around and use their minds to motivate and move their bodies, they will. They’re also very receptive to the meditations we do at the end of the class. I had a teacher from Buffalo who said, ‘You are the Fourth-Grade Whisperer’ because these classes can be very loud and they have a lot of energy. We have figured out how to balance that high energy movement with meditation and the beauty of yoga.”

Harrison said they are teaming up with Marshall University to host a teacher training April 27 for anyone who wants to bring these practices into schools and recovery centers. You can register at jeannieharrison.com.

Harrison, whose other job is working with and coordinating prevention and recovery groups for the United Way’s Cabell County Substance Abuse Prevention Partnership, said she is excited to share the impact of what the practice of yoga is doing in her life and impacting others who are struggling.

“I was that person who desperately needed yoga in my life, and I couldn’t afford to go into a studio. I needed it for my mental health but didn’t have the resources to get there,” Harrison said. “What I felt when I became a teacher was that I have to be conscious of the people who couldn’t afford to go to the studio or the people who were too anxious to go to a studio and the other barriers to it. I have seen it not only transforming people’s lives but their identity. Especially with the women I have worked with in recovery who now see themselves as yogis ... Yoga for Emotional Intelligence is giving people very specific tools.”

New program coming to Cabell, Wayne

While Harrison has coordinated this grassroots effort with a patchwork of funding, a bigger wave of this kind of effort is on the way this spring with a multi-agency collaboration.

It was announced in late November that the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a grant to Marshall University to create a coalition between agencies in an effort to assist children in need who have been affected directly by the opioid epidemic in the region.

The Victims of Crimes branch of the DOJ awarded the Marshall University Department of Social Work a $750,000 grant to push forward the West Virginia — Trauma Informed Mindfulness Engagement for Kids program, which is being established to address the unmet needs of children affected by the opioid epidemic in Cabell and Wayne counties.

From first responders to therapists, the program will connect about a dozen organizations, all with the goal to provide trauma-informed behavioral health support through a combination of coaching, social work and legal services for students and their family.

Peggy Proudfoot Harman, the program’s principal grant investigator and director of the university’s master of social work program, told HD Media in a previous article that the region already has seen early success in similar programs like Huntington’s Quick Response Team, which focuses on getting adults into drug recovery programs. The WV-TIME4K program will work in a similar fashion, but for kids when their parents are involved in drug-related activity.

“WV-TIME4K’s model will have a significant impact on children in local communities, with broader impact at regional and state levels,” she said in the Nov. 28 article. “Implementation of the WV-TIME4K model will enable further understanding of successes and challenges in meeting the needs of our youngest crime victims of the opioid epidemic.”

WV-TIME4K will implement a program in four of the area’s elementary schools — Ceredo-Kenova, Wayne, Central City and Spring Hill elementary schools.

Andrea Roy, who is working with the program, said in mid-February that they are hoping to begin the first teacher trainings in March. Those trainings will be conducted by Katrina Jefferson of Peace-Tree Center.

Partners for the WV-TIME4K program include the Cabell County Department of Health and Human Services, Cabell County Drug Court, city of Huntington, Huntington Police Department, Healthy Connections Coalition and Legal Aid of West Virginia, PeaceTree Center for Wellness, United Way and several Marshall University programs. In Wayne County, DHHR, Wayne County Schools and drug court also will participate.

Cabell Circuit and Adult Drug Court Judge Gregory Howard said the program will be a huge asset in helping address the area opioid epidemic and recovery.

In states with more judicial funding, family drug courts are set up to address drug dependency issues as a family unit, Howard said. While West Virginia doesn’t have that type of program, the grant will allow for drug court to move toward that direction.

About 30 children of drug court participants will immediately be referred to the program, Howard said.

“I think the goal of this grant is to target these issues children have before they turn to drugs as a coping mechanism. We are excited about this,” he said. “Our probation officers have discussed this, and we are going to be ready to make referrals so these folks can immediately start working with these children.”