Lisa Meranti has seen students transform from unsettled to peaceful and focused. As a longtime teacher with ZENworks Yoga, she and fellow instructors bring this exercise into Cleveland public schools.
One fifth-grade girl, known as a disrupter in class, was deliberately included during Meranti’s yoga course. Now, this student uses her leadership abilities to help make each yoga class a success. With older students, Meranti introduces concepts like empathy and makes connections to science and math.
Founded by Sonya Bapna Patel, ZENworks has provided the benefits of yoga to more than 5,500 students since 2010. It works to address obesity and mental health in underserved communities.
Yoga was always part of the backdrop of Patel’s Indian-American family life and culture. A native of Northeast Ohio, Patel first used yoga to help students succeed during her Teach for America stint in a Brooklyn, New York, school. Her students struggled with anxiety and stress, and they had difficulties focusing while in her classroom, so she taught them how to breathe deeply and find calm while using a few yoga poses. It worked remarkably well, so Patel brought the idea back home.
The ZENworks founder is committed to inclusivity, so they teach methods only. There is no religious element to the ZENworks approach, just the tools that can help every student in his or her life, both in and outside of school.
Teacher Wanida Balankura did a residency with ZENworks last year and now teaches kids 4 to 12 years old. Balankura sees positive change in herself as a teacher, classroom manager and, most of all, in her students. “The biggest change I’ve noticed is their improvement in yoga, not only in the poses but in their ability to stay focused and centered, especially with the younger kids that I teach,” Balankura says.
Haleigh Curlis, who teaches kindergarten to third grade and also sixth- to eighth-grade boys with behavioral issues, agrees: “It’s been amazing to hear my students give examples of how they have used yoga out of the classroom when dealing with negative emotions. They have been able to make a connection to their breath and use the breathing exercises we practice as a tool to help them calm down when they are angry, stressed, frustrated, etc. in their day-to-day life.”
Curlis works toward this goal by starting her classes with high energy, emulating the physiological body responses to stress, and then working with the class to practice breathing exercises and awareness until they’ve calmed back down.
With 14 teachers on staff and six in the residency training program, Patel is working to bring yoga to more students, family members and teachers through in-class teaching, literature, online yoga videos and workshops.