High School Yoga Visit: Sage Hill School, Teacher Merja Connolly

I recently attended Merj’s Monday noon class at the private high school where she teaches, Sage Hill School. Sage Hill offers yoga both for credit in the physical education department and as an after-school activity. In the almost four years of yoga being offered, it has become an essential piece of the school’s diverse curriculum offering: students and parents alike are grateful for the time for student relaxation, free from competitive pressure.

Merj’s class gathers in a circle in the gym, with the school logo on the gym floor centering their circle. Today there are six students, though her class fluctuates up to 25 students when spring sports are not in session. Of her two yoga for credit sections, one is all girls and the other is 60/40% girls to boys.

Merj quietly invites students to get centered in the middle of this acoustically loud gym and the strategy works. It seems that speaking quietly engages listeners to more actively pay attention. She leads the class through many active poses (her sequence follows) and ends with a full 10 minutes for relaxation with Supta Baddha Konasana (reclined cobbler’s pose) and Savasana (corpse pose).

To <strong>read more on this topic</strong>, pick up a copy of <a title=”Teaching Teans Yoga” href=”http://yogaminded.com/shop/teaching-teenagers-yoga-ebook-volume-ii/”>Teaching Teens Yoga eBook, Vol. 2</a>

Merja’s Class Sequence, 3/9/09, 75 Minutes

Vajrasana (hero’s pose)
Parvatasana (hands clasped overhead)
Utkatasana and Parivrtta Utkatasana (chair pose and revolved chair pose)
Surya Namaskar 4X (Sun Salutes)
Virabhadrasana I to Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (warrior I to revolved side angle)
Virabhadrasana I to Virabhadrasana III (warrior I to warrior III)
Virabhadrasana II to Utthitta Parsvakonasana (warrior I to side angle)
Vrksasana (tree pose)
Natajarasana (king dancer’s pose)
Ardha Uttanasana (half forward bend)
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon)
Vasistasana 2X (side plank)
Ustrasana (camel)
Dandasana (staff pose)
Baddha Konasana (bound angle or cobbler’s pose)
Setu Banda Sarvangasana (half bridge)
Urdvha Dhanurasana 1X only (full wheel)
Paripoorna Navasana 3X (full boat, modified)
Supta Baddha Konasana (reclined cobbler’s pose)
Savasana (relaxation pose)

Merj adjusts her student during relaxation

What I commend about her sequence is that it has a lot of challenge; teenagers don’t have a choice but to notice what’s happening in their bodies doing these poses. Also, standing poses are a classic and never over-used choice working with teens.
One subtlety in her class worth mentioning is that she got into the standing poses for the middle of the vinyasa or sun salutation. Every time students stepped a foot forward or back in the lunge, they straightened the front leg and came up with hands on hips. It is infinitely easier to incorporate the upward energy of standing poses when you get into them by lowering from straight legs. Coming into poses from the lunge position has its merits, of course, but with teens its better to get them in a place of ease because standing poses, on their own, are challenging enough.

Occasionally Merj left her position and corrected students. She seamlessly moved to other students to coach and encourage and back to her spot in the circle. Teen students need to know their being observed. When a teacher adjusts one student, it elevates the mindfulness of the whole group. I witnessed one student perk up in her pose and become more alert.

Students had a chance to recover and explore other asanas in the second half of her class. From Ustrasana to Navasana, poses were done rather quickly. There’s nothing wrong with that. Class sequences have different emphases on different days.

As mentioned, the full 10 minutes of time in relaxation was essential for these teens (and most others!) This is a wise sequence for teens in that they are challenged, opened, and invigorated first so that a meaningful and deep relaxation can follow. As Merj explained afterwards, “Yoga is valued at Sage Hill School for relaxation, a place without performance at any level.”

Merj’s presence invites a mellowness among her students, a welcome tone from their academic and athletic stress. She delightfully included sweet comments that reminded students to take things easy, enjoy the subtlety, and feel good about themselves. My favorites were: “find your rhythm” and “loving it”. Her laughter was a great mood lifter for the class, too.

An after class picture

After class Merj shared some other comments about how she teaches for other teen yoga teachers.

She explained that she frequently likes to close class by having each student teach a pose. She reminds them to be conscious of what the person before them did and they proceed to teach around their circle.

The Yoga Flashcards are a useful tool for her class. She gets the class to select a pose they want to do. She reports that kids love them and she gets to learn new poses. Also, it’s great for them to study the correct form by silhouette and learn the Sanskrit name.

Her students request core work and she often includes traditional abdominal isolating exercises.

Because her classes meet three times a week for two long 85 minute periods and one short 45 minute period, Merj approaches her short class differently. Depending on how students are feeling, she may coordinate an indoor sport for 15-20 minutes and then do two relaxation poses for the remaining 15 minutes. Students are barefoot so they play games such as badmitton, ultimate frisbee, indoor soccer, or indoor baseball.

Nutrition is big topic for Merj’s students. She constantly checks in with students about what they’re eating. She provides information and encouragement to balance their diets, eat fresh foods, and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Merj introduced an after-school option for yoga and it has been really successful. Many students at Sage Hill prefer to do yoga after-school when the school day has ended and they can let go of their stress from their day. She permits her for-credit students to attend after school if they choose, which allows for an extra study period in the middle of the day.

Merj underscores the importance of being a good role model when teaching teens. If a teacher is teaching about healthy lifestyles, then seeing them experiencing a healthy lifestyle is essential. Teenagers “see” what is going on around them. A good example for Merj is that she is always telling teens to drink more water. Alas, she can always be found with her water bottle nearby. Also, when she checks in with students about their days, she includes herself.

For her high school environment, Merj wants students to have permission to laugh or to interject a comment without having to ask permission. (Many teen yoga teachers would like to have THAT issue.) She encourages a relaxed, communicative atmosphere.

Merj attended Yoga 4 Teens training 3 years ago. It has been truly rewarding to watch her become a skilled yoga teacher for her teen students at Sage Hill School.

An after class pic