Bringing Yoga To School: Winston-Salem yoga instructor Crista Baker is changing lives, one asana at a time

Yoga can happen anywhere, even in a lunchroom. The quiet hum of the cafeteria in the Forsyth County Special Children’s School is broken by the mystical, serene voice of Crista Baker, a yoga instructor in the Winston-Salem community. She turns to a group of four middle-aged women resting on yoga mats and says, “Take a moment to give yourself gratitude.”

Self-gratitude is exactly what Baker hopes to instill in these particular women, as with any of her yoga students. “We all have busy schedules, and we often neglect our own needs. It’s important to take time for yourself,” she says.

Two long tables form an L shape, enclosing the small square space among which the women lie. Schoolteachers, they are clad in jeans and work attire: their faces worn by years of strain from teaching rambunctious youngsters with special needs. Yet, in the midst of yellow painted brick walls spotted with drawings featuring Crayola squiggles and stick figures, there is an undeniable aura of calm that surrounds the room.

Baker herself radiates a peaceful feeling with her pleasant, balanced demeanor. Her dark, curly hair curves along her face in a similar fashion to her lips, which are constantly pulled apart in a welcoming smile.

“I find that yoga brings me happiness, comfort, and balance in addition to the physical benefits,” she says. These feelings were what inspired Baker to further her own practice by becoming an instructor. “I wanted to share how I felt with others and help them find balance in their own lives.”

Baker trained at Ananda Ashram in Upstate New York, a far trip from her native South Carolina. “I chose it because they taught Ashtanga style as well as Sanskrit, mantras, and meditation,” she says. At Ananda Ashram, Baker “really got to live in this yogic culture I had known so little about.” It furthered her desire to share the benefits of yoga practice with others.

She teaches at various yoga hot spots throughout the Winston-Salem area. “I teach a Hatha style class twice a week at Paz Studios downtown, and I have taught at The Breathing Room,” Baker explains.

Wake Forest University juniors Elisabeth Young** and Lauren Schwartz** are loyal aficionadas of her Friday Hatha-style class at Paz. “I feel so rejuvenated after every practice. It’s such a detox after a hectic week of pre-med college classes,” says Young.

Schwartz agrees. “Crista really has a way of connecting with each of her students on an individual level, whether there are ten people or one person in a given class,” she says.

Yoga is Crista’s passion, but it ran even deeper beyond the dim lights and heated walls of a studio. She was determined to find another way to give back to her community. “I wanted to give back and extend my experience to everyone!” she exclaims.

Baker realized it wasn’t realistic to try to enlighten everyone, one downward-facing dog at a time, so she pointed her new focus to teaching people she felt would truly benefit from the practice: teachers. This, in turn, fired her incentive to pioneer Bringing Yoga to School, a project that “allows teachers to enjoy all the benefits of a yoga class in the comfort of their own school.”

Bringing Yoga to School’s roots originated at the Special Children’s School. “I [chose to teach at the Special Children’s School] because its teachers give so much to the community. I wanted to show appreciation for what they do, and say, ‘Hey, you know what? You’re doing an awesome thing and you deserve to do something awesome for yourself, too.’”

She comes to teach these women for thirty minutes every Wednesday morning, at only a dollar per class. “There are very few things you can get for a buck, let alone something that you can use every day and retain in the long run,” she says. Jokingly, she adds, “Even the Dollar Store charges taxes! I don’t.”

In her classes, she incorporates the meditative practices and mantras she was taught at Ananda Ashram. This explains the waves of calm and lightness that Baker radiates. Laughing, she says, “It’s a great stress relief!”

Her mother, Carol Baker, is a teacher at the Special Children’s School. She attests to the stress relief benefits she’s received from her daughter’s morning yoga classes. “As a mother and as a kindergarten teacher, I rarely take time for myself. It’s all about the kids, and they are pretty high-energy,” she says. “With the yoga, I zone everything out, and I leave feeling calm and collected the rest of the day by doing this one little thing for myself. It’s a nice feeling.”

It’s also a feeling Crista intends to be attainable on any given day, and sustainable over time. She says that by incorporating mental practices—called pranayama in Sanskrit—in times of stress, it calms the body down. Smiling, she remembers one of her students.

“She was super self-conscious at first, but a month later, we had gone from worrying about little things like what to wear to class to finding more ways to incorporate pranayama in times of stress.”

The learning aspect is extremely important to Baker. She is, after all, a teacher, too. Baker says, “It brings me so much joy to know that I’ve helped others strike a chord with balance, retain what they’ve learned, and continue to learn with a curious appetite.”

Crista adds that yoga is also exciting, and that each practice is different because the body is constantly changing. “Yoga always brings the body a new challenge regardless of your experience level,” she says. “It’s something anyone can do. Everyone can benefit from the practice.”

Edie McBurney, one of Baker’s loyal students and a speech pathologist at the Special Children’s School, says that this is one of her first exercise programs. “I had never done yoga prior hand, but I’ve loved the stretches for my back because I spend a lot of time sitting in little desks with small children,” she says. With Crista’s guidance, McBurney has since incorporated those stretches and more to loosen her muscles throughout the day.

The yoga has also instilled in Baker’s students an air of self-confidence. Of her daughter, Mrs. Baker says that although Crista will modify the practice based on how everyone feels on a given day, she will also take things for a challenging turn. “She motivates you to challenge yourself. She’ll physically move me into some positions, and that makes me go, ‘Oh! I did it! I can do this!’ when I had never thought I could before,” she says.

Her teaching has benefited her students so much that she has inspired them to take it into their classrooms. “It’s given me a new way to teach my kindergarteners their right from their left,” says Mrs. Baker. “They don’t even realize that they’re learning it, but by learning it in a fun way through yoga, it carries over.” She adds that it has also given the children similar gains in self-confidence to those that she has received herself.

Crista hopes that her initiative to bring yoga to schools will carry over to other schools in the Forsyth County area, including at high school and college levels.

“So far, it’s just at the Special Children’s School, but I am confident that it will spread elsewhere. There needs to be faculty and staff on board and a need for it, which, let’s face it, we all could use stress relief,” she says with a chuckle. “I just want to be able to give other teachers the same benefits I’ve seen within both myself and my current students.”

Whether in a school or a studio, Baker thinks anyone can attain mindfulness, so long as they set aside some time for themselves. She firmly believes that taking that time allows one to better interact with others. She calls this the “Oxygen Mask Theory”: putting on your own oxygen mask on an airplane before helping those around you.

After thirty minutes of flowing through a series of mentally and physically strengthening poses, the stress of the four teachers has evaporated. Now, a glow of mindfulness surrounds them. Crista breathes with an air of genuine satisfaction, “The light, peace, and joy in me honors the light, peace, and joy in each of you. Namaste.”

** = Name has been changed for privacy

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