Mission High Students practicing Yoga at Integral Yoga Institute

In a fourth floor attic-space on Dolores and Liberty streets, students are sprawled on the floor — ­silent.

Eyes closed, their favorite color is traveling through their mind and body — or at least that is what the teacher has suggested. Moments later, they’re sitting in a circle, hands clasped in their neighbor’s, describing their state of being. Adjectives come in quick-succession: relaxed, calm, happy, dizzy, clumsy, sleepy, good, energized, amazing, astounding, awake, rejuvenated.

This is how a yoga session winds down for Physical Education (PE) students at Mission High School.

RISE: Yoga for Youth is a program at Mission High School initiated by Erin Lila Wilson, the program’s executive director, and Scott Kennedy, a Mission High Physical Education instructor.

Wilson, who has been teaching yoga to high school students for eight years, originally started in New York City, but moved here two years ago and started a pilot program for high schools in San Francisco. “I figured schools here would be open to it,” she said.

Entering its third year, the program remains small. One of the main difficulties in implementing the program, which is limited to 30 students a year, is that other PE classes at the school have anywhere from 45 to 60 students a class. Not only would a yoga class of that size be difficult to manage, the space also just isn’t available.

Wilson and Kennedy use a room at the top of Integral Yoga Institute for the class. It’s a room they pay for, but believe is well worth it. As it turns out, getting the students away from school grounds helps put them in a new headspace and allows for any social politics operating on campus to fade.

“You could fake the funk,” Kennedy said, but ultimately he doesn’t believe the program would be effective if the kids were being instructed inside of the school’s gymnasium.

Student Alex Ramirez agrees.

“There’s an energy and peace in that room,” said Ramirez, who was enrolled in the program its first two years, fulfilling her final PE credits with the class before entering her senior year. She believes the space allowed for her and other students to let their guard down.

In her freshman year, before RISE started, Ramirez had a 1.6 Grade Point Average (GPA.) She frequently got into spats with her mother, couldn’t focus in school and had problems sleeping. She attributes all of this to typical “teenage” angst. Once she started with RISE, her sophomore year at the school, her problems started to fade.

Ramirez’s GPA rose from 1.6 in her freshman year to 3.5 by the end of her sophomore year, and continued to grow until she reached the 4.0 she’s at today as a senior.

She no longer has problems sleeping or waking up. Even her relationship with her mother has improved —they do yoga together in the mornings every so often, something she believes has helped them both. Presently, she’s in the process of applying to colleges, hoping to study nursing at Hawaii Pacific University. Her angst is gone.

“It helped me find a balance in life,” she said of the program.

According to data compiled by Wilson and Kennedy, the students in their yoga program are doing better on average than the students in a regular PE class at Mission High. The average GPA of their class is a 3.1 versus the 2.78 of another class.

Though a modest point differential, no one in their class had a GPA dip below 2.2, while the other class frequently had GPA’s that dipped below 2.0. The attendance rate is even better. RISE is at a 93 percent attendance rate, while the other class is at 70 percent.

Due to the work RISE has been doing, Mission High School has been keen on expanding the program. Since starting RISE two years ago, they’ve added two 10th grade advisory groups, that Mission High funds, as an addendum to the PE class. According to Wilson, other schools in the district are starting to reach out, but they haven’t gotten “district-level funding yet.”

Running the program can be difficult but Wilson believes it’s worth the dedication.  Both her and Kennedy met multiple times over summer, and often meet in the morning before school to strategize on how to keep the program afloat and also advancing. RISE was recently registered as a non-profit and relies heavily on grant money and donations for critical funding.

If you’d like to help support RISE, Yoga Tree in Potrero Hill will be offering classes that directly fund the program throughout Thanksgiving week. You can go to RISE: Yoga for Youth for more information on the classes, as well as the program.

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Justin Richmond has been educated all over California, including Orange County, Los Angeles and Berkeley. It’s an experience, he says, that will help him cover community colleges and high schools. He's particularly excited to explore how the Mission's schools reflect the Mission.

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