Stretch: Carla Tantillo's Hip-Hop Yoga students perform at Taste of Chicago.Courtesy CARLA TANTILLO

“Getting rid of the ‘ick'” is how Carla Tantillo, 35, describes the relaxation that students feel after practicing yoga at school. The former high school teacher, Oak Park resident and certified Yogi brings her relaxation program to school districts around the country, including PE classes in District 97.

“Yoga gives students the tools to deal with life stressors. When students — and teachers — are relaxed, it gives them the skills to learn and be productive,” Tantillo says.

Her book, Cooling Down Your Classroom offers teachers yoga coaching in order to tap the inner calm that can focus a rowdy classroom. In eight-minute chunks after lunch, Tantillo says, students become more focused and discipline infractions occur less frequently.

“It doesn’t work to send naughty kids to the principal’s office any more,” she said. “When my mom and dad get in a fight before school, I’m carrying the ‘ick’ to school. For the teachers, that’s the one student who is like nails on the chalk board. Some students have a hard time being quiet because they’re listening to a negative internal dialog.”

In her work in Chicago Public Schools, she saw a need to provide something for students who “weren’t receiving services for stress or anger management.”

“Yoga helps us stretch out and get rid of our anger and stuff, and get rid of our sorrows and stuff,” says a CPS student on one of Tantillo’s videos.

Tantillo’s goal is to teach students self-awareness through Kriya yoga. With her company, Mindful Practices Yoga, she consults at schools to train PE and other teachers in yoga practices. The company also runs an after-school “Hip-Hop Yoga” dance program which combines “culturally relevant” dance music with yoga poses. Her hip-hop students have performed at Taste of Chicago for several years.

Kids love yoga, says Tantillo. They love the quirky names given to different poses, such as Cow Face, The Stork, Downward Dog, Seal Pose or Tree, “mnemonic devices to help you remember the pose,” says Tantillo.

Then there is the physical exercise, stretching and deep breathing, that gives students a window of relaxation during stressful school days. Yoga teachers encourage students to think about stressors and triggers — to learn about themselves in a “memory minute” when they sit and “clear their minds or think positively about themselves.”

“When we feel good, we’re more active in the world, even as adults. We take more risks in our learning.” Tantillo stresses that yoga is non-competitive, and each child creates poses in their own way. “It’s not a presentation; it’s a practice,” she says.

She works hard with teachers to make sure students don’t feel self-conscious. “The classroom teacher has to model self acceptance, to embrace self-acceptance.” That means modeling the “modified” or easiest version of the pose that is “achievable, even for students with obesity issues.”

Tantillo’s mother, Violet, retired as principal at Berwyn’s Jefferson Elementary School, 7035 W. 16th St., two years ago. Carla introduced yoga there on a school-wide basis.

After lunch, teachers dimmed the lights and students practiced yoga for eight minutes. The experiment was reported in Education World magazine, where Violet was quoted saying discipline referrals dropped in a year from 254 to 132. She told the magazine, “I’m not the Wicked Witch of the West anymore.”

Mindful Practices Yoga now conducts workshops in schools around the country trying to bring the benefits of yoga to teachers “who are tired and spent when they go home. [Yoga] gives them tools to deal with students pro-actively, and relax themselves.”

For Kathy Madura, a veteran PE teacher at Lincoln School, yoga fits the bill for the new direction she’s seeing in the teaching of physical education.

“[Yoga] works as an overall wellness concept. It gives you physical flexibility, strength building, muscle strength and emotional calming and concentration. It can have a huge impact on students.” Madura and another PE teacher attended a Michigan weekend yoga workshop with Tantillo and began to put yoga ideas into practice in D97 PE classes.

Madura pumps up the yoga before the ISATs. “We do yoga for test-taking to get the students’ minds focusing in a better place.

“Yoga is not a flash in the pan,” she says. “You’re not going to play kickball as an adult, but you can do yoga as an adult and at home. It’s a lifetime learning area.”

Join the discussion on social media!

10 replies on “Oak Park schools try to ‘cool down’ students with yoga”