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Breathe easy, teachers: Award-winning Madison startup brings yoga to educators

Breathe easy, teachers: Award-winning Madison startup brings yoga to educators

breathe for change

Breathe for Change hosted its first 16-day seminar for teachers in Madison last June. They hope to host two next year - one in Madison and one in California.

Earlier this year, a 38-year teaching veteran told Ilana Nankin that “every single year, I see teachers burn out, time and time again, and I’ve lost almost all hope — until today, when you came in.”

Nankin was at that teacher’s school to roll out the school’s pilot membership in Breathe for Change, a startup Nankin founded late last year in Madison. Breathe for Change brings yoga and mindfulness practice to educators.

“There are so many demands on teachers — and teachers are such givers, that they never really stop to take a moment for themselves,” Nankin, a former Teach for America pre-kindergarten teacher in San Francisco and current UW-Madison Ph.D. student, said. “We’re just so inspired to be able to continue work in education from a place of happiness, life well-being and support.”

Though Breathe for Change has just been in existence for a handful of months, it has already developed partnerships with four Madison-area schools, begun building out in California’s Bay Area and completed a 16-day teacher training program at UW-Madison. That training was attended by 40 educators.

“It was incredible and totally life-changing for everybody involved,” said Sarah Archibald, director of professional development, policy and research for Breathe for Change.

“Through Breathe for Change, it’s been such an honor to work with these principals who get it," she said. "They get that they need to support their teachers, they want to support their teachers, they understand that supporting their teachers is how they have a strong school and how their students do better. That’s a truth that people have not faced in the past, it’s like they can keep handing out more that they have to do and not paying attention to the need to be nurtured.”

Nankin moved from San Francisco to Madison in 2012 to pursue her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from UW-Madison. The idea for Breathe for Change came when she was teaching a class to UW undergrads. When they learned she was a yoga instructor, they reserved a space, toted their yoga mats across campus and insisted that Nankin lead a class or two.

Soon, it became what Nankin calls “a movement.”

The students saw the positive effects of yoga and mindfulness permeate their lives personally and professionally, they told Nankin. As they practiced the techniques, they encouraged students to employ some of the breathing and thought exercises in theirs.

Nankin chose eight of those original UW-Madison student teachers to follow in their first years as full-time, professional teachers. She flew across the country to meet them in their new classrooms and to interview them about their lives and work, all with the purpose of including the information in her still-in-progress doctoral dissertation.

“The teachers were telling me that the only thing that was keeping them in the classroom and feeling supported was the community I created for them and the few techniques they had learned to really center themselves,” she said.

So Nankin decided expanding the model was her calling. She gave it the name Breathe for Change and recruited a team, including 100state co-founder Michael Fenchel as vice president and COO, and, via the instruction of a UW professor, education policy expert Sarah Archibald as director of professional development, policy and research.

In May, the team and Breathe for Change won the Wisconsin Center for Education Products & Services prize at the UW School of Business 2015 G. Steven Burrill Business Plan Competition.

Then team was the first-ever nonprofit startup to be accepted in the Madworks Seed Accelerator. Breathe for Change graduated from that program in August.

Since then, the startup has moved into a private office in the downtown startup hub 100state and is currently pursuing fundraising goals, expanding their pilot programs in schools and further developing their curriculum.

Breathe for Change hopes to launch an app for teachers and schools soon, and is looking toward hosting two seminars next year, one in Madison and the other in the Bay Area. They hope Breathe for Change will continue to expand and bring more teachers into the fold of mindfulness and self-care.

“It’s going to take a lot of fundraising, it’s going to take a lot of community support, and we need everyone to be involved,” Nankin said.  “We see this ultimately becoming a community effort.”