In 2015, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies published a report which showed that nearly 20 percent of New Orleans’ children showed signs of PTSD. That’s four times the national average. And yet, these children are expected to attend school and succeed just like their peers, despite the fact that they possess no coping skills to help them with their trauma.
This is the problem that Chelsea Hylton, founder of Project Peaceful Warriors, is hoping to alleviate in the NOLA community.
Project Peaceful Warriors is a program that offers support to students, teachers, faculty and caregivers through trauma-aware yoga and mindfulness practices. In Hylton’s own words, “We empower students to build skills like self regulation, social awareness, self awareness and relationship skills so they can be successful students and impactful members of the community.”
Hylton first began practicing yoga with her dad when she was in middle school, and she continued to do yoga throughout her high school career. But it wasn’t until college that Hylton really began to see yoga as a mindfulness practice rather than just physical exercise. “It helped me work through a lot of different things, including personal traumas,” she says, “which is why I think I’m so drawn to this work.”
Hylton attended College of Charleston and was a student of the School of Education, Human Health and Performance when she was given the opportunity to teach yoga at a local elementary school. Hylton taught there for three years, and after graduating from College of Charleston, she became a registered yoga instructor.
Then, three years ago, Hylton moved to New Orleans to teach yoga full-time as an enrichment teacher in a charter school. Her classes consisted of about 35 students at once.
That’s when Hylton realized that students in New Orleans needed something a lot smaller and a lot more specialized.
Hylton has already worked with over 700 students in NOLA schools, including those within the New Orleans College Prep charter school network, and through Firstline Schools, Jefferson RISE and Young Audiences.
Teachers from these schools are seeing improvements in their students’ behavior, their ability to focus, their levels of self-confidence and in improved peer relationships. “Teachers have told me that their students start to ask for ‘yoga breaks,’ to stop and do some ‘belly breathing,’ or—my favorite—‘just a second to sit and meditate’ when they are feeling overwhelmed,” Hylton reports.
And she says the educators who go through Project Peaceful Warriors’ professional development programs are noticing the same changes within themselves. “Through teaching yoga to their students or just for themselves, it gives them an opportunity to practice self-awareness,” she explains. “Teachers then have the tools to get themselves and their class from where they are physically, emotionally and mentally to where they want to be.”
Project Peaceful Warriors recently participated in the PitchNOLA: Living Well pitch competition, where they placed second and earned $3,000 in prize money. When asked how the win has helped PPW, Hylton replies, “Placing at PitchNOLA has not only helped us monetarily, it has also opened doors to more connections within the NOLA community.” According to Hylton, educators are aware that their students need support, but they are often unaware of available resources. “PitchNOLA,” she says, “has helped us connect with more of these educational programs that want to implement our programming, as well as community members who want to help support us.”