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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Students at this Spokane elementary school find peace of mind by stretching their bodies

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 26, 2019

Captain Pat Walker high-fives Regal Elementary School fourth-graders as they enter the gym for mindfulness instruction. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Captain Pat Walker high-fives Regal Elementary School fourth-graders as they enter the gym for mindfulness instruction. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Take a deep breath and consider this: Perhaps the most innovative pilot program at Spokane Public Schools is commanded by a captain who tells his audience to reach for the sky.

He also wears a flower in his hair and speaks passionately about the power of yoga. This is no ordinary captain.

“My whole mission is friendship,” Captain Pat said after a mindfulness class last week with fourth-graders at Regal Elementary. “Yoga is pure friendship, loving and befriending yourself.”

“With all the craziness going on in the world, befriending yourself makes it easier to befriend others,” he said.

In other words, if more children find inner peace through meditation, there might be fewer conflicts in the classroom.

“In this day and age, kids need to know how to calm themselves down,” said Korah Cobb, a health and fitness teacher at the Hillyard school.

“This class brings such joy to me,” Cobb said.

For principal Patricia Kannberg, mindfulness means seeing some of her students – most of whom live in low-income families – get “a more positive start to the day.”

“It’s an opportunity for that student to reflect, that ‘I can use kind words and be respectful,’ ” Kannberg said. “It also gives a chance to use our restorative practices.”

With that in mind, more schools around the nation are teaching the subject of mindfulness. A summer program last year at Shaw Middle School drew up to 200 attendees a day, where it continues along with Captain Pat’s classes at Regal.

Part of Regal’s physical education curriculum, mindfulness is winning over the minds of students and staff.

“You walk out of class with a smile on your face,” fourth-grader Porschia Linhart said. “I have a lot of things on my shoulders, but when I do yoga it just falls off.”

Captain Pat, also known as Pat Walker, opens the morning class by running the students around the gym. He offers high-fives and encouragement.

Five minutes later, students are on their donated yoga mats. They go though yoga poses, but no one is going through the motions.

Everyone is focused on Captain Pat.

A former college football player at San Jose State, Walker has a master’s degree in physical education. After teaching in private schools in California, Walker “realized that he wasn’t following his passion,” said Lisa White, director of Express and After-School Programs.

“He has a gift,” White said.

As Captain Pat talks about focusing on breathing, students stretch their bodies and their minds.

“I really like that you just feel very calm when you’re around him,” Linhart said.

While yoga has been around for thousands of years, research into its benefits for children are quite new.

At Johns Hopkins University, researchers studied the effects of mindfulness on disadvantaged students in Baltimore.

Elementary students were trained on breathing techniques and yoga poses for 45 minutes, four times a week for 12 weeks.

“Their scores on the survey showed us that they were better able to respond to stress with less emotional arousal,” Johns Hopkins researcher Tamar Mendelson said.

According to Education World, which markets a lesson plan for teachers, mindfulness is shown to “improve memory, organizational skills, reading and math scores, all while giving kids the tools they need to handle toxic stress.”

There’s plenty of stress to go around at Regal. Out of 474 students, 82 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals – the highest percent in northeastern Washington.

White said she’s optimistic that the program can expand to other schools.

To that end, White will seek private funding and more partnerships with the Northeast Community Center and the Zone Project, a collaboration involving the City of Spokane, Spokane Public Schools and others to address poverty in northeast Spokane.

“But you need to have the buy-in” from staff and students, White said.

That’s been no problem at Regal.

“I’m very passionate about this,” White said. “I know this works with kids – we just have to get more opportunities.”

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