Students in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands are being introduced to the ancient Indian practice of yoga with the hopes of improving learning outcomes in the Western Desert.
- A yoga program has been introduced to school students at eight campuses across the Ngaanyatjarra Lands
- Advocates say yoga programs improve students’ learning capacity and reduce anxiety
- Not-for-profit organisation Yogazeit has been collecting evidence from the schools using its program with the hope of introducing it across WA
Fremantle-based not-for-profit health charity Yogazeit co-designed Australia’s first culturally informed yoga education project with the Ngaanyatjarra Lands School (NLS), having worked closely with students and Ngaanyatjarra elder Daisy Tjuparntarri Ward.
Volunteers from Yogazeit visited the school’s Western Australian campuses in Kiwirkurra, Warakurna, Wingellina, Wanarn, Warburton, Jameson and Blackstone to introduce the program to students and teachers.
The yoga poses were given culturally relevant names like fire, echidna and tree branch, written in English and Ngaanyatjarra language, and the illustrations for the poses were hand-drawn by NLS student Charlotte Golding.
A two-way approach to learning
Ms Ward, the NLS community liaison officer, has been working closely with the school’s psychologist Tim Thornton for years on plans to improve education outcomes for students struggling with concentration and attendance.
They started with the introduction of the MindUP program three years ago, which draws on neuroscience to teach children techniques that help regulate stress and emotions.
Ms Ward said it was important the program was implemented with a two-way approach to learning by combining Indigenous culture and western concepts.
“We think about things, how we can help kids focus?” she said.
“I really love it because when you’re working with the children you see their faces light up.”
The modern understanding of mindfulness stemmed from ancient eastern philosophy and Buddhism, but Ms Ward said it was also embedded in Indigenous culture through tracking and the spiritual connection to country.
“It’s always been there,” she said.
“They’ll be happy walking around, tracking, smiling, talking to each other.
Techniques to ‘settle down’
Mr Thornton said the core of the MindUP program was to regulate breathing, which helped calm the nervous system.
“When people get upset, agitated, stressed, they tend to breathe faster and the heart tends to beat more rapidly and they go into what we call, “Fight or flight mode”, and it makes it very difficult to concentrate,” he said.
Mr Thornton said while the mindfulness education was having a positive impact, Yogazeit’s mindful movement program was easier for the children and teachers to utilise.
Warakurna campus principal Shelly Maes said teachers used the program daily to reset for lessons and to help students who were struggling during class.
“In the classroom you can see something’s happening between two students, or the work is maybe a little bit too hard,” Ms Maes said.
“You can really say to the students, ‘What do you do?’, and then they will do the breathing, calm themselves down.
“If teachers are even a little bit heightened, or something’s happened, it actually assists them as well.”
Aboriginal educators oversee lessons
Because yoga is a spiritual practice, Aboriginal educators are always present to ensure the lessons are culturally appropriate.
Yogazeit yoga educator Sharnell Avery was one of the volunteers who travelled to the Ngaanyatjarra Lands to introduce the program.
Ms Avery said she grew up in a house with domestic violence and found herself struggling with anger growing up, but yoga changed things for the better.
Ms Avery said the program was designed under an evidence-based trauma-informed framework, with support from Flinders University and Murdoch University.
“Places like America, England [and] India all have outstanding evidence on how great this is, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to Australian culture, Indigenous or not,” she said.
Ms Avery said international evidence has shown a yoga curriculum increased learning behaviours and self-care, and decreased the need for behaviour management and anxiety levels.
She said if the program was a success, they hoped to introduce it to schools across WA.
“We’re trying to gather that evidence so that we can see how we can change this continually flexible curriculum, and target the kids that live here,” Ms Avery said.