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At Lancaster High School, Students Can Choose Yoga Over Detention

Adora Namigadde
On Tuesdays, Lancaster High School offers yoga and other mindfulness exercises to students who otherwise would serve detention.

Lauren Greenspan leads three students through Lancaster High School’s noisy hallways to an inconspicuous building next to the main school.

“They can kind of slip over here without being noticed too much,” Greenspan says. “It’s a room with no windows, so you don’t have to be like in downward dog wondering if people are staring at you.”

Lancaster High School brought Greenspan in from the Youth Yoga Projectto change the way it handles detention. Instead of forcing kids to sit in a classroom after school, they’re having Greenspan teach misbehaving students new coping skills.

"All Behavior Is Communication"

With students’ help, Greenspan transforms a classroom typically used for Freshmen Focus into a yoga studio. 

“You guys can start moving the desks forwards towards the front wall and backwards towards the back wall so we can make a space in the middle,” Greenspan directs the students.

The three teenage boys scoot desks across the floor to the front, back and sides of the classroom to clear a space in the center. Greenspan lays out yoga mats, soft yoga blocks, blankets and lavender-infused eye pillows. 

“What do you guys know about what this program is about and why we’re here?” Greenspan asks.

“To stretch out our muscles? To relax?” the students guess.

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Lancaster students cited for disruptiveness or other minor offenses can choose yoga as an alternative. Many say they'd return to weekly classes even after their punishment ends.

Greenspan explains that she’ll guide the students through breathing exercises, yoga poses and guided reflection.

“Our premise is that all behavior is communication, and if kids could do well, they would be doing well,” Greenspan says. “So if they’re not doing well in some way or not making responsible decisions, it’s usually due to a skill deficit rather than willful disobedience.”

Better Than Doing Nothing

These makeshift yoga studios have been a welcome respite for students like senior Derek Mitchell, who got in trouble for ditching class.

“Uh, I skipped school," Mitchell says. "I think it was three times."

Before this school year, the normal punishment would have been Wednesday Night School, a two-hour detention. But administrators gave him another option.

“They said I could do yoga instead," Mitchell says. "So obviously an hour of yoga is gonna beat two hours of sitting in the classroom doing nothing."

The Youth Yoga Project, a nonprofit, was co-founded by Greenspan and fellow Columbus yoga instructor Julia Handelman. This is the first year they're running the detention alternative in Lancaster - it's called REaCT, which stands for "Restorative Exercises and Coping Techniques."

“When we’re angry, we’re taking short, shallow breaths,” Greenspan says, demonstrating. “That’s communication to our body that we need to get ready to fight, flight or freeze.”

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Lauren Greenspan helped co-found the Youth Yoga Project in Columbus. This is their first year leading alternative detention in Lancaster.

Greenspan teaches the students calming exercises they can use when they’re in class.

“Our aim is to equip them with healthy tools they can use anytime, any place, through their breathing, focused awareness on their body and relaxation techniques, so that they can calm their nervous system and brain and make more responsible decisions,” Greenspan says.

Building Discipline

Lancaster High School teachers Lindsay Swartz and Laura Specht helped bring the program to her school after Specht saw a similar one in her Facebook feed.

“One thing that I think happens with normal detention is our students have to go into a room, they have to sit there for an hour, they’re supposed to bring something to do, they usually don’t," Swartz says. "They stare straight ahead, maybe try and sleep for the hour, and then they leave."

Yoga isn't offered to everyone at Lancaster, just to students who commit minor offenses like defiance and noncompliance. Most have been boys.

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Greenspan says all behavior is communication, so she teaches students to better communicate as a way to control their behavior.

Mitchell only joined to get out of detention, but now he says he kind of likes it.

“Honestly, it kind of clears your mind a little bit because that’s all you have to think about," Mitchell says. "You don’t have to think about anything else."

He says even after his punishment is up, he’ll still come back. Tuesday's classes are only for kids avoiding detention, but any students can go to sessions on Thursdays.

Specht says it’s hard to measure the program’s success because it just started six weeks ago, but she hopes to see long-term benefits.

“I think our goal is, if they can better manage the stresses in their life, perhaps they won’t continue to encounter the discipline problems they’re facing at school,” Specht says.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.