Breathe For Change Provides Teaching Tools to Help Fight Burnout

Amy Kazda knows the value of exercises with a calming effect. Kazda, who teaches music at two elementary schools in Madison, WI, said that many of her students come to her classroom directly from gym class. Often, they still have adrenaline pumping through their veins.

“Their minds are racing, and their bodies are maybe racing, too,” Kazda said. “They were coming to me so amped up that we needed some sort of positive calming transition to get ready for this next class.”

Kazda, who has been doing yoga for the past 15 years, said she found that starting and ending her classes with a “mindful minute”—leading students through breathing exercises, simple yoga poses, and other creative movements—helped improve their focus.

“I think it’s really crucial for children in this busy, chaotic world to take that time, and have some calm and quiet,” she said.

Kazda is currently working to bolster her mindfulness credentials even further. She’s one of 100-plus participants in an intensive wellness and yoga teacher training program organized by the Madison-based startup Breathe For Change. The program kicked off earlier this week and runs through July 12. Those who complete all requirements will be certified as Registered Yoga Teachers, said Ilana Nankin, founder and CEO of Breathe For Change. Many organizations offer yoga instructor certifications, but Breathe For Change is unique in that it caters specifically to educators, she said.

Part of the idea behind the startup is to encourage teachers to take time to nurture their well-being, which is becoming increasingly important in an at-times stressful profession with high turnover, Nankin said. (More on this in a minute.)

Launched in 2015, Breathe For Change is growing at a fast clip, said Michael Fenchel, the startup’s president and chief operating officer. It trained more than 200 teachers to become yoga instructors last year, and he expects the company to certify another 700 in 2017.

Ilana Nankin, founder and CEO of Breathe For Change. Photo by Jeff Buchanan.

So far, Breathe For Change has held training sessions in Madison, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. In the next 12 months, it plans to expand into new markets, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Austin, TX. The organization receives about 75 applications a week from teachers seeking to participate in future programs, Fenchel said.

“Our biggest challenge is just scaling fast enough,” said Fenchel, who has helped start several ventures, including the Madison co-working space 100state.

I recently sat in on a Breathe For Change training session held at a school on Madison’s north side. Getting into the gymnasium where it took place required walking around a sea of Birkenstocks and flip-flops. (Once inside, I believe I was the only one in the room wearing shoes.) The floor along the gym’s four walls was lined with smartphones, energy bars, and clear plastic bottles—most filled with water, though some contained more exotic beverages, like kombucha.

Out on the hardwood floor, the class’s participants were not aligned in rows and sitting on top of yoga mats, as I had envisioned. Instead, everyone stood in two concentric circles, except Nankin and Fenchel. They were leading the workshop and stood at center court.

During the first exercise I observed, students in the inside circle faced outward, and vice versa. Nankin or Fenchel would ask a question—sample: “How do you like others to show you gratitude?”—and students spent a minute or so discussing their answers one-on-one. Then everyone in one circle would rotate clockwise, another question would come, and students would form new pairs.

The next exercise was quite a bit different. This time, those in the inside circle faced inward, and were instructed to hold hands and close their eyes. The two session leaders directed students in the outer ring to “tap” or “show your love for” someone in the inside circle who met the most recently announced criterion—someone who made your day, whom you’d support unconditionally, who you wish taught at your school, who just makes you melt, and so on. A lot of shoulder-squeezing and stroking of upper arms ensued.

During the activity, the gym stayed mostly silent. Besides Nankin and Fenchel’s voices, the only sounds that reached my ears were bare feet on parquet and occasional sniffles.

After the students in the two circles switched places and repeated the process, they all sat down for a brief reflection. One of them said that it felt heartening, if a bit out of the ordinary, to receive gratitude without knowing the source. The exercise ended with a brief inhale-exhale routine.

In an interview afterward, Nankin told me that the theme of the first several training days is “transformation of self,” meaning she and others on the Breathe For Change team encourage teachers to be introspective.

“Teachers are so often givers—to kids, to families, to their colleagues,” said Nankin, a former pre-kindergarten teacher herself. “[Amid] all that, they forget to take care of themselves, which leads to stress and burnout.” Nearly half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, she said.

Breathe For Change also trains teachers on the physical practice of yoga, or asana. The other three sections of the organization’s curriculum—which is hundreds of pages long and Nankin said her team put together from scratch—are anatomy, philosophy, and meditation and mindfulness.

The startup relies on a team of about 60 people to screen prospective students, run training programs, and perform the other tasks needed to keep the business humming, Fenchel said. Eight of them are considered full-time employees, he said.

Fenchel said Breathe For Change raised a small round of outside financing earlier this year. The majority of the company’s revenues come from the training programs it puts on, which are sometimes funded by teachers’ schools, parent-teacher groups, or through campaigns on the website DonorsChoose, he said.

Breathe For Change has created a fair amount of buzz in the wellness community. A video the organization posted to Facebook earlier this month has more than 300,000 views.

Facebook is also part of the startup’s marketing strategy. It creates posts on the social network that specifically target educators, Fenchel said. Word of mouth is another way people learn about Breathe For Change, he said.

If all goes well, the startup plans to organize training programs outside the U.S., Fenchel said. “We see this as a global movement,” he said.

For Kazda, participating in Breathe For Change represents a welcome role reversal.

Describing how it feels watching Nankin, Fenchel, and others lead sessions, Kazda said it allows her to “think about, ‘What is it that I want my students to see at the front of a classroom, or in the middle of a circle?’ That’s both a super heavy responsibility and also an amazing gift.”

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