Meet the Guy Teaching Yoga to Philadelphia Public School Kids

Photograph courtesy of Christopher Theodore

Photograph courtesy of Christopher Theodore

Christopher Theodore has been teaching yoga in Philadelphia public schools for the past 14 years. Surprised? There’s more: Christopher—or Mr. Coach Theo, as his younger students call him—has a whole curriculum he’s built for his P.E. classes that carves out time for yoga, plus optional after-school classes for kids who want to deepen their practice. Cool, right?

I chatted with Christopher last week to hear more about what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, and why he thinks yoga is important for kids in Philadelphia.

How long have you been doing yoga and teaching it at Philly schools? 

I started doing yoga 15 years ago and began implementing in my P.E. classes a year later. I got certified at Yoga Life in Devon.

I’ve been at Meredith Elementary School for five years, but have actually taught in three different Philly schools—two in West Philly before Meredith. The other schools were more challenging behavior-wise than here, which is why I started teaching my kids yoga. I thought it could help with some behavior problems. In my experience, it did.

How are your P.E. classes different from others? I remember gym class being a lot of dodgeball and rope-climbing; we definitely never did yoga.

I have each class one time a week for 45 minutes. Since my classes have a particular structure, my kids know what to expect. Each class starts off with some type of cardio: 10 minutes of jumping rope or hula hooping or freeze dance or jogging. Then I get everyone get into a circle to do 10 to 15 minutes of yoga. We start with breathing exercises because when they think about their breathing—in through your nose, out through your nose—it helps them focus. We’ll work through poses—seated poses, standing poses, balancing poses—and eventually, they’ll learn a full sun salutation. They might not know the names of all the poses, but my kids can do sun salutations. In fact, the seventh and eighth graders can’t pass my class unless they know a sun salutation.

Ideally, after yoga, we would spend most of the rest of the class on the sport of the month, and maybe a quick nutrition lesson. I find that after they’ve done yoga, they’re better able to focus and listen to the rules and learn. Sometimes, depending on the day and how the kids are doing, we might not even get to the sport of the month—and that’s okay. A good teacher is one that’s able to adapt. So even if I have a class where everyone’s talking and crazy, we get definitely, always, without a doubt get through cardio and yoga. I can go home feeling good; these kids got to move their bodies.

What do you think yoga teaches young kids? How does it fit in with an academic curriculum? 

Yoga is the union  between the mind and body and breath, so it’s a really good way to calm their minds and bring them into the present moment. Yoga promotes thinking, expands the imagination. Our school is one of the top elementary/middle schools in the city. Our standards are high; they’re challenged. So it does reduce stress and helps balance energy.

Here’s the other thing: Not every child is an athlete. One of things my kids hear me say all the time is, “You don’t win yoga.” So I think it’s a great activity for meeting kids at their level. It teaches kids that not everything is competitive, and that’s a lesson, I think, they can take to other areas of their life.

How many kids take your after-school yoga class?

I do a one-hour yoga class once a week for whichever kids want to take it. It’s basically third through eighth graders, boys and girls. Last year I had a class of 12 children, and it was half boys and half girls. This year I’m up to 15 kids. {Editor’s note: He also teaches private lessons to adults.}

How does a kid’s yoga class differ from an adult’s yoga class? 

I match it with songs for the younger kids. Like, for example, we’ll do a boat pose that we’re holding for 25 seconds, and we’ll sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while we do it. And we do things like, we’ll do cat and cow pose and meow and moo while we’re doing it. Or in cobra, we’ll stick our tongues out like a snake. It’s all about making yoga fun—like a game.

Have other schools approached you about implementing your curriculum in their classes? 

I’ve done some professional development with other P.E. teachers in the District, but I want to do more. I call my curriculum “Cardiyogalicious,” the idea being that there are three parts to the class: cardio, yoga, and nutrition. My goal is to implement Cardiyogalicious throughout the school district and go from there.

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