Stretching away the stress of exams
Andrea Smith looks at how St Raphaela's secondary school is using yoga to help its Leaving Cert students
When it comes to the things that stress us out in life, the Leaving Cert is one thing that will always have the capacity to give us nightmares, even decades after we left the horrors of trigonometry and the 'modh coinníollach' behind.
While many of us would contend that a lot of what we learnt in school was of no further use to us in the adult world, St Raphaela's Secondary School in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, has challenged that notion by introducing yoga lessons into the PE curriculum. These serve the dual purpose of destressing the girls in advance of their exams, and teaching them relaxation techniques that will benefit them throughout the rest of their lives.
St Raphaela's PE teacher, Ciara Clarke, first introduced yoga into the senior cycle PE programme three years ago, enlisting freelance yoga teacher Fiona McBennett's services via Yoga Dublin.
"It's nice to talk to the senior cycle students and listen to what they feel would benefit them," explains substitute PE teacher Linda Douglas, who is currently covering Ciara's maternity leave. "So, from doing that, the school set a programme that would include 10-week courses of PE, yoga and zumba per year. There are three sixth-year classes and they do the courses in rotation."
Arriving in the PE hall at St Raphaela's, the first thing a visitor would notice is the ongoing noise from the apartment building beside the school grounds. However, the 20 sixth-year students lying on yoga mats seem to have completely tuned the outside world out, and are concentrating on the instructions being given to them by serene and elegant Fiona.
Developing the ability to tune out extraneous noise and other distractions is very important, she explains, as once you can do that you can meditate and employ yoga techniques anywhere.
They may be anxious about the impending exams, but there is no outward sign of strain as the girls segue fluidly from the warrior pose to the tree and on to the downward-facing dog.
They listen intently during the hour-long class as Fiona calmly talks them through the routines, carrying out each move to the best of their individual abilities. They have all impressively mastered the poses, and look comfortable and relaxed executing them.
Yoga is traditionally an adult-oriented pursuit, so one presumes that it must be a different experience for Fiona teaching classes to schoolgirls who are not there on a voluntary basis? Particularly as it involves many tricky poses, and teenagers can be notoriously body-conscious at times.
"When the school approached me initially, I knew it would be different," she says. "My classes are usually filled with adults who are paying to learn yoga and want their money's worth. I was slightly worried initially, but I spent a few years as a teacher myself, so I was used to the school environment. You have to move fast and keep the girls occupied as the girls don't like to be bored.
"Once they get the giggles out of the way, it's grand," she adds. "At first, they are conscious of their peers and a little self-conscious doing moves like the downward-dog, but something happens two or three weeks into it, and they get more relaxed and focused.
"I think it appeals to them as, unlike competitive sports and group sports, everyone is in their own space and can settle into it at their own pace. There is no athleticism needed. I would have loved that when I was their age, so I think the school should be commended for really listening to the students and thinking outside the box."
Orlaith Burke (18) from Mount Merrion, and Narayani Mukerji (17) from Dundrum, pictured left, are two of the sixth-year students who are currently benefiting from the weekly classes.
Both are hoping to get enough points to study medicine, so the pressure is very definitely on. What they love about yoga is that they can incorporate the techniques into their schedules at home, helping them to relax their stressed minds and stretch their cramped limbs out after intensive studying sessions.
"I feel all the stress draining from my body during yoga classes," says Narayani, who came to Ireland from India six years ago. "I have a clear mind after it and that's really necessary. Yoga teaches you the importance of relaxation, and you don't get that anywhere else.
"My mum does her own kind of yoga at home, and I like to think of myself as very flexible, but it's nice that Fiona understands that everyone has their own level."
"I wouldn't be as flexible so it's nice that you can go at your own pace," says Orlaith, who also plays hockey.
"I'm always sad when the class is over. What's brilliant about it is that you can do it at home, so if you're studying and don't know how to relax at the weekends, you can take a few simple bending or lying-down poses from yoga and start from there."
The classes have been so well received by the students that the programme has now been extended to fifth-year students.
Fiona finds that even when it's not officially their lesson, some students will ask to join in on the classes to help them relax when their oral exams and mocks are looming.
The school believes that yoga has helped the students to cope mentally as well as enhancing their physical fitness levels. According to PE teacher Linda, who also plays soccer with Wexford Youths Women's AFC, it's a life skill as well, as the techniques learnt in yoga set the foundation for other sports as well.
"Core strength and stability and all that kind of thing is very important," she explains. "And going forward, it's very good for the students' social confidence, because now that they have the background in yoga, it won't be daunting if they wish to join a class in college or in later life."