04/09/2013 06:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

Yoga and the Importance of Play in Schools

This is an interview with Peg Oliveira, who has taught yoga for years in schools, detention centers, preschools, after-school programs and inpatient and outpatient mental health centers for youth and adults in and around New Haven, Conn. In 2011, an after-school program director asked her to offer free classes to her staff. Soon, the yoga classes became staff meetings. Looking at the sweaty smiles of those youth leaders, responsible for hundreds of kids daily, she saw leverage: Give a kid an hour of yoga, and you de-stress him/her for an hour; give the kid's teachers yoga, and you might de-stress the kids all day.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

As a child advocate, I worked on the ballooning problem of child care center expulsion rates. Exclusionary discipline exists even in pre-kindergarten. In the 1999-2000 school year, Connecticut had one of the highest rates of preschool expulsions in the nation. Pre-kindergarten students were expelled at a rate of 12.31 expulsions/1,000 students. The state's K-12 expulsion rate that year, in contrast, was 1.18 expulsions/1,000 students.

When my child turned 1, I found her a well-regarded child care center. On day one, I stayed for a bit, and then left her at the center. She cried, but only until recess. At snack, she left the table. When made to sit, she cried. It was the same story on days two through four. On day five, she was apprehended climbing a bookcase. Upon being removed, she wept. The center's director called to explain that she was possibly not ready for group care. It took a few minutes to sink in, but then I got it: my child had just been turned away from child care for moving. As a policy analyst, I should not have been surprised. I knew that physical activity in child care centers was very low, and expulsions were rising, but only now had the connection hit home.

Is there a standout moment from your work with children and youth?

108 Monkeys, the non-profit yoga service organization I founded, mobilizes teams of volunteers to help teachers bring play-based yoga into classrooms, affordably. Yoga meets kids' needs for both physical activity and imaginative play, measurably reducing stress and negative behaviors.

In one New Haven public preschool of 20 vibrant 3-year-olds, I lead the kids, at the great concern of their teachers, to jump, bump, wiggle, and even roar loudly enough to attract the attention of office staff down the hall. Then I asked all 20 kids to lie in a circle on their backs and "be still logs." I then had each child, one at time, step carefully over each "log." Logs needed to stay still and not trip the stepping child. Stepping children needed to be respectful of space and compassionately step over (not on!) the "logs." A teacher jumped up and asked if she should start another child around the circle, so it wouldn't take so much time and the children would not be expected to lie still for a time longer than she believed they were able. I encouraged her to sit, breathe, and trust in the children. They performed the mindful exercise with grace and calm. I knew, at that moment, this stuff works.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

I'm a product of my own research and advocacy! While I'd always known in my gut that, in addition to yoga, I needed to immerse myself in a contemplative practice that included meditation and pranayama (Sanskrit word meaning "restraint of the prana or breath"), it never received the same attention in my priorities as asana (any of various yogic postures), or just about anything else. Since talking the talk about the benefits of simple breathing work and mindfulness exercises, I'm walking the walk.

What other organizations do you admire?

I am a follower of the work and evidenced-based practices of B.K. Bose and the Niroga Institute. We had a phenomenal service yoga program in 2012 using Street Yoga as a training module.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

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