When Jenna Asselin gets nervous, she goes silent.
Like many modern day students, the Johnston High School senior struggles with anxiety.
It can creep into daily interactions. It can stop her mid-sentence.
Few methods have worked to keep the stresses subdued. One route — the path to enlightenment via yoga — has been a game-changer.
And now Asselin’s sharing her experiences, through her senior class project, organizing, planning and helping to lead a 10-week yoga course at the Marian J. Mohr Memorial Library.
“Do you know that it is a scientific fact that yoga is good for mental and physical health?” asks the young yogi. “I became interested in yoga because I have anxiety and have experienced depression. I found doing yoga helped me deal with both.”
Asselin’s anxiety can be crushing and frustrating.
Her aunt, Pauline Genest, a certified yoga instructor, has helped mentor Asselin in her quest for calm.
“Jenna’s project was developed last fall when she had the idea,” Genest said earlier this week. “She has been a truly flexible yogi — changing the classes each week to expand the scope from high school seniors to anyone who wants to try yoga.”
Asselin’s classes have hosted diverse audiences, partially due to a now-comical vague statement on the course’s original flyer, which encouraged both juniors and seniors were welcome to join the class.
While she meant high school eleventh and twelfth graders, both young students and senior citizens arrived for a lesson. Genest and Asselin welcomed them all. Seven weeks later, three classes remain, and anyone’s welcome to join.
“I have always been active,” Asselin recalled. “When I was younger, I was in gymnastics and on a cheer team. When I started doing yoga it was easy because I was flexible. More importantly, it was calming. Yoga let all the stuff I worried about get released and let me see how much moving my body does for me.”
Each weekly class installment has a different theme.
“I asked local studios and wellness companies to help support the program with educational information, as well as equipment and special gifts for weekly raffles,” Asselin explained. “I chose a yoga program because it helps with depression and anxiety. I read a recent Pew study that found that 70 percent of teens experience anxiety and depression. In fact, according to the CDC, ‘teen girls are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk.’”
The CDC report was released in early 2023 and echoed the anecdotal experiences of most parents raising increasingly isolated children through the twin pandemics of Covid and the spiritual ills of social media.
“I believe Covid is a big part of why this is happening,” Asselin hypothesizes. “The pandemic started when I was a freshman and lasted for over two years! My peers and I were isolated like everyone else, but social media was our biggest escape. While we were isolated, many started to feel insecure and there was a lot of body shaming. We all were comparing ourselves to people on Instagram. It made being isolated worse. Plus, because we were at home we weren’t getting out and exercising.”
Asselin said she hoped creating an active, health-minded senior class project, would also “get people off their phones and out of their houses.”
“Yoga is perfect to help with movement and feeling better in your body,” she said. “I believe this program will help my peers get healthier both physically and mentally.”
Each week has been sponsored by the Tri-County Community Action Agency’s Health Equity Zone (HEZ). Asselin has created an Instagram page for the class (jhsfreeyoga).
Although she was unable to utilize a space at the school, the Johnston library staff was very accommodating, providing a space downstairs next to the children’s reading room.
The project has recently expanded to the University of Rhode Island, where next week, she’ll hold a free class on the Kingston campus quad.
“The research I have been doing as part of my project, had opened my mind to thinking yoga will always be a part of my life,” Asselin said. “I have realized that yoga is much more than just physical activity. In fact, learning about meditation has been very helpful.”
A long list of sponsors have helped Asselin provide the full yoga experience. Carina e Dolce, Specialty Cakes & Cookies, of Cranston, provided snacks. Yoga at the Point at Conimicut Point Park in Warwick provided essential oils — the energizing peel of peppermint and a soothing blanket of lavender opened and closed last Monday’s class.
Gravity Yoga Center and Phoenix Rising provided free classes, straps and mats for raffle giveaways. Second Wind Health pitched in yoga mats. And Twisted Root poured some kombucha.
“I am so happy that I found sponsors for my project. People have been generous with gifts such as mats and meditation cards,” Asselin said. “These raffles make the classes more fun. I really thought I needed the prizes to get kids to come to class, but I now see that having a space to do yoga together and experience its benefits as a group is why people keep coming back.”
Through the tasks of creating the 10-week program, Asselin realized how much yoga and meditation were helping.
“When I am meditating, I feel my problems disappear for a little bit,” Asselin writes for her senior project. “I really like how I feel when I meditate and have learned that it’s not done only on the mat or by closing your eyes. For instance, I color in adult coloring books or play chess as part of my meditation routine. In fact, I meditate before my schoolwork. I find it helps me to not stress out and just give up. I have ADHD so it’s hard to stay still and concentrate. It’s surprising that yoga has helped with this.”
Asselin hopes new students show up for the final three classes (held at 2 p.m. on Mondays at the Johnston public library).
“My goal after this 10-week program is to go to the school department and try to make it a permanent after school club,” she said. “I wish every school offered a yoga program because lots of kids may feel as I do. Like me, they may not know what to do with their anxiety. Also, they may not know how to ask for or are afraid to ask someone for help. I know how that used to feel.”
For Asselin, the yoga experience goes far beyond the gong baths and smelly oils.
“I know I was told my anxiety and depression was just in my head for a long time and it made me feel worse,” Asselin wrote. “I know this has happened to many other people my age. Being told the depression or anxiety isn’t ‘real,’ doesn’t help — it just makes a teen feel more hopeless. Having free programs where students get together and just relax will give an opportunity for peers to help each other. When I graduate, I think I am going to try to get certified to teach. My long-term goal is to help my peers get healthier both physically and mentally. Namaste.”