Five years ago, Rachel Pelloni and her friend, previous students of Starkweather Academy, approached a social worker, Alicia Starbowski, about starting a yoga club at Starkweather Academy, located in Plymouth, Michigan.

“At the time, I was going through a lot of stress and had a lot of anger issues without a proper outlet. I knew yoga was more of a meditation process that relieves a lot of stress and anxiety,” said Pelloni. “I went to suggest it because I thought it would be a great thing, and it was.”

Starkweather Academy is an alternative school within the Plymouth Canton school system. It’s home to a diverse population of students, ethnically and environmentally.

Starbowski was thrilled at the young ladies’ request for a healthy outlet, and immediately reached out to My Yoga Room for support.

My Yoga Room stepped up to the challenge, and its teachers volunteered their time to go to Starkweather once a week, teaching a free yoga class to any students who wanted to come during their lunchperiod.

The classes are held in whatever room is available that week. My Yoga Room created a sanctuary for the students inside the school where they could feel safe, be vulnerable and learn from looking inside themselves. The studio brings in yoga mats, music and inspiration.

“These are students who would not otherwise have access to yoga – either because of no parental support, transportation or funds. Offering it for free during their lunch was a dream come true,” explained Starbowski.

She even attended the classes with the students to help prompt them and make them more comfortable. About 50 total students have come over the years, with around 10 students attending each semester. Starbowski has been tracking students’ GPA in relation to the yoga class, proving its benefit. For example, two sisters had zero credits to start, and both ended up with 4.0s and graduated in a large part to the yoga in their lives.

The data over the past five years of the program breaks down into the below:

  • 2014-2015: 39% average increase in GPA
  • 2015-2016: 102% average increase in GPA
  • 2016-2017: 146% average increase in GPA
  • 2017-2018: 442% average increase in GPA

Starbowski has seen other benefits aside from academics as a result of the weekly yoga classes. “The students are less reactive, they have better coping mechanisms and better grades,” she said. “The students are getting in less trouble and are able to verbalize their feelings a bit better. They have greater self-awareness.”

Starkweather’s students weren’t the only one receiving benefits. My Yoga Room’s teachers are, too.

“You leave there, and you felt good. You just did something for these kids who really needed it,” said Julie Silberg, a teacher at My Yoga Room. “It was very satisfying personally. We were just happy the kids came. We were always very respectful of boundaries because we knew we were dealing with a very vulnerable population. We were simply providing a safe, calm space to practice yoga, even if the student only did a few minutes of practice.”

My Yoga Room was so inspired by the results and progress that they give away three scholarships per school year for students to be able to practice at their studios during the summer. Pelloni was a previous student of Starkweather’s who received this scholarship.

“It made a huge difference. Honestly, as soon as I started I continued,” said Pelloni. “It relieved a lot of pent-up stress and aggression. I also realized I had a lot of back pain and it helped a lot… I am so happy that the yoga club is still going and has made such a positive impact at Starkweather. I loved being there and all my teachers.”

In terms of advice for any other schools looking to start a similar program, those involved offered four tips:

  1. Review the data to see the impact this type of program could have in your school.
  2. Numbers don’t lie – yoga works. Yoga is impactful.
  3. In a global sense, anxiety and teenage depression are on the rise and programs like these in our school systems are a great way to combat it: teaching and giving them tools to help manage these emotions.
  4. Yoga teaches strategies to “leave behind something that is not serving them” in their life and move forward with a more positive frame of mind even for a short period of time.