A Breath of Fresh Air

By Helen Mitternight

You remember the R’s from school, don’t you? Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic and…relaxation?
Empowered Minds is a nonprofit program bringing yoga, mindfulness and a sense of calm to local students, and the thought behind it is that these practices enable students to be more open to learning and better able to tune out distractions.

Founder Leigh Crowder-Biearman, a yoga teacher and occupational therapist, said she was living in San Diego and teaching similar skills to students with special needs.

“I had been working with kids with self-regulation and attention challenges for some time, and there were lots of tools and different things we’d recommend that parents and teachers use,” she said. “When I did my own yoga class for the very first time, a light bulb went off. It’s so simple; we have all the tools we need—our bodies and our breath. We can learn to calm ourselves down or wake ourselves up.”

Crowder-Biearman started incorporating fun breathing exercises and different postures as mindfulness tools that she shared with local teachers, explaining how simple tools of body and breath were things that any student could use.

“If you’re a teacher, you may have a student in your class who has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), but guess what? I’ll bet the whole class could use these strategies,” she noted.

Eventually, the TBonz Foundation approached her about bringing her philosophy to South Carolina, where Charleston is home to the foundation’s parent company, Homegrown Hospitality Group. Crowder-Biearman said she was ready for the move and soon founded Yoga Kidz, which has since been rebranded as Empowered Minds.

The original iteration of Yoga Kidz started with just a few yoga classes, but has expanded to include the practice of mindfulness, a method akin to meditation that focuses on breathing and being present in the moment. Not only does Empowered Minds bring volunteer yoga teachers to area schools, the organization also offers teachers resources, videos and handouts, so that they have simple and practical strategies to implement at any time.

In the first academic year, yoga at pilot school Mitchell Elementary was a physical education class once a week. The very next year, the principal dedicated specific yoga time written into the schedule, just like library time. The program has recently expanded to James Simons Elementary, Charleston Progressive Academy, Simmons-Pinckney Middle School and Burke High School, for a total of more than 40 classes each week. It’s no accident, by the way, that all of these schools feed into the same high school. Crowder-Biearman explained that some of the students have been in the program since they were as young as five years old.

“It was intentional to follow the students as long as possible,” she said.

Overall, the program has been well-received, although parents can always choose to opt out.

“There are a few that opt out, but we’re definitely making sure that, in our classes, we’re not using …anything too new-agey,” Crowder-Biearman said. “It’s just the basic life skills of how to use your breath when you are feeling mad. It’s practical, and I can justify and explain all of it as an occupational therapist. I can explain it in a neurological way— how it helps the nervous system.”

She pointed out that teachers tell her they notice a behavioral change in the kids on yoga and mindfulness days.

“Teachers are saying it sets students in a better mindset for the rest of the day—that they’re really able to hear what teachers are saying. It takes some repetition, but I’m hearing that teachers will now say, ‘Let’s take a yoga breath before we take this test.’”

Crowder-Biearman hopes to expand the program, noting that this goal is limited only by the number of volunteers able to visit more schools.

“We want to expand with intention,” she shared. “We’re very intentional about wanting quality over quantity.”

Want to offer your help? Empowered Minds is always looking for volunteers who take a two-day training as well as occasional continuing education. Volunteers do not have to be yoga teachers, but it helps to practice yoga yourself and have a love for children. The nonprofit is also in need of yoga mats and supplies.

Volunteering and donations can be done through their website, empoweredminds.org.