The Community Problem Solvers project "Root to Rise" encourages students to cope with stress by learning mindfulness.
In a dimly lit corner of the Flagler Palm Coast High School media center, a calming soundtrack and essential oil diffuser set the mood as International Baccalaureate students stretched on yoga mats.
Yoga instructor Sonya Romero demonstrated the next position while reminding the students to breathe deeply.
Once a week since the beginning of the school year, FPC senior Ekatereena Kouzina has joined this group of students for a yoga session as part of her Community Problem Solvers project called “Root to Rise.”
The meaning behind the name comes from the popular yoga saying, “root down, rise up.” She uses inspiration from how a Lotus flower blooms out of mud to encourage students to find their own beauty and worth within.
“This is something I really try to engrain in students, so that despite our hardships, despite the stress that you’re feeling, you can take that and you can become a little more self-aware of it and in turn you can create something beautiful out of it,” Kouzina said.
As a yogi herself for the last year and a half, Kouzina felt inspired to create a CmPS project to better her peers’ mindfulness after watching her 10-year-old autistic nephew Jaydon benefit from the simple act of breathing.
She recalled a summer day last year when she was visiting with Jaydon. He was upset, and so, in an attempt to calm his meltdown, her sister told him just breathe.
“He sat down crisscross apple sauce — or Lotus is what we call it in yoga — and he just started breathing and it was so beautiful because even though my sister directed him to do it, he didn’t have to do it that way; he chose to do it that way,” Kouzina said. “When I come over, he asks me to do yoga with him. I don’t know if he necessarily understands why he does it, but he enjoys it. It’s something that helps him.”
With her nephew in mind, she started implementing one-hour long yoga and breathing classes once a week with ESE students at FPC, starting in January. She said their teachers have already reported improvements in their behavior.
“I think the best part about it is the response I’m getting,” she said.
After the IB students’ first yoga session in August, Kouzina conducted a survey, which found that 85% of the students who participated felt less stressed and more focused for class.
Kouzina is now beginning to work with the Graduation Recovery students at FPC and the school's i3 academy. She hopes to meet with administration in March to discuss a school-wide mindfulness initiative, as well.
“I feel like the yoga definitely helps me become more relaxed throughout my day,” FPC senior Igor Sokolov said. “It’s helped to take the pressure off me, both psychically and mentally, and it’s helped me become more aware of who I am as a human being and my place in the world.”
As a co-captain for the tennis team and member of cross-country last year, Sokolov said yoga has benefitted his flexibility and improved pre-match stretching.
“I’m not a very flexible person, so when I started, I couldn’t do many of the exercises that other people were doing but now I feel more comfortable with myself, with my body, and I feel like I’ve become more flexible,” Sokolov said.
He hopes to continue practicing yoga in his own time after graduation to stay mindful and relaxed, he said.
“A really big thing I’m striving to do with the project is improve that movement literacy — pairing the educational aspect with the physical aspect,” Kouzina said. “And then the goal is to help students be more self-aware in stressful situations.”
At the end of the yoga session on Thursday, Jan. 31, as students laid on their backs with their eyes closed, Romero and teacher Diane Tomko softly waved their hands — with essential oils on them — over the students' noses, quietly instructors them to take a deep breath one by one.
Not long after, the school bell triggered reality. But the students went on to their next class with a clear head and open mind.