Kira Willey

Kira Willey

Bringing musical yoga and mindfulness to underserved kids in the Lehigh Valley.

If you ask children’s yoga instructor Kira Willey the career milestone she’s most proud of, the answer may surprise you.

The singer-songwriter has recorded four award-winning albums of children’s music and mindful moments, published a children’s book, had multiple yoga and mindfulness episodes air on PBS39, and heard her song “Colors” featured on a global ad campaign for Dell. But it’s a connection built with the staff and students at Donegan Elementary School in Bethlehem that causes a smile to inch across her face every time she talks about it.

She’s become something of a familiar face (and voice) at the school over the last five or six years. She’s done teacher trainings, benefit concerts, and brought her Rockin’ Yoga programs to the school. She’s featured Donegan students on her recordings. And breathing exercises from her “Mindful Moments for Kids” record are played across the school during daily morning announcements.

“I think I’ve made something of a difference in the culture of that school, and that’s something I’m really proud of,” Willey says, noting that it’s all because of the openness of the principal and staff.

Principal Sonia Vazquez says she hears kids singing Willey’s songs during school and applying her lessons. “During this past PSSA testing, a boy in third grade put his pencil down and said, ‘I need to take a few bear breaths,’ and he did,” says Vazquez.

In the spring, Willey led a six-week after school program for Donegan students who’d had to leave their homes and extended families in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria’s devastation.

“They’d been through some horrible stuff,” Willey says. She worked on mindfulness and breathing exercises to help the students recognize and manage their feelings. “Any way you feel is okay,” Willey would tell them. “But don’t let anger drive the bus. Use mindfulness to pause, take a breath, and make a choice.”

She’d talk about scenarios, like a student running through the hall and bumping into another. Rather than react with anger, Willey cautions students to pause, breathe, and consider the situation. Maybe the student heard a sibling got hurt on the playground and he or she is running to get there, but didn’t see the student up ahead. “I can’t solve the kids’ problems, but I can try to help by giving them coping strategies,” she says.

“Mindfulness is all about paying attention with kindness.”

Willey would also demonstrate five-finger breath, breathing in and out as she traced each of her fingers. “It only takes about five deep breaths for your brain to get the signal that everything’s okay,” Willey says.

Mindfulness is all about paying attention with kindness, she explains. “It’s not very often that we pay attention to what’s going on in our minds and bodies,” Willey says. “And when we do, we’re self-critical.”

While the yoga portion of her lessons focuses on strengthening the body, the mindfulness part is exercise for the brain. “Paying attention is a skill. We get told this all the time, but we don’t teach kids how,” Willey says. “When I ask kids if they ever get distracted, every hand goes up.
It takes work to learn to focus on just
one thing.”

It’s something she encourages her own children to do. The mother of three jokes that her kids have been “my guinea pigs, my backup singers, and involved from the get-go.” Bear Breath, for example — taking long breaths in and out while imagining you’re tucked safe and cozy in a cave — is how she’d get her own son to sleep.

In the 14 years since she started teaching kids’ yoga, Willey has watched her career unfold like a lotus flower. From working on albums and shows to training teachers, building school programs, and volunteering at her kids’ school, Willey’s schedule is packed. But that isn’t stopping her from taking on two new projects: playing fiddle in the bluegrass band Moonshine & Millet and starting a Pop-Up Choir with a charitable aim.

The latter is a “no-commitment, no-rehearsal” choir for grown-ups. Participants learn a simple arrangement in 45 minutes and then record it, all while supporting a social mission. In February, a Pop-Up Choir brought in donations for Easton’s Third Street Alliance for Women & Children, which offers shelter services, child care, and activities for families in need.

No matter which project she’s working on, Willey says it all comes back to music, movement, and mindfulness. With teachers, she encourages them to build music and movement into the rituals of a classroom. “Most kids don’t get enough movement,” Willey says. “Movement increases blood flow to the brain, makes students ready to learn, and helps them to focus.”

With students, she focuses on self-awareness and empowering them to practice mindful breathing exercises on their own. And she hopes her lessons extend beyond the classroom. “When a child says they went home and taught their parents to do Bear Breath, it’s just really gratifying to hear,” she says.

Bear Breath

Pretend you’re a bear, hibernating for the winter. When bears hibernate, they breath slooowly, in and out through their noses.

Take a long breath in through your nose, and let it all the way out.

Take another long breath in through your nose, and let it all the way out.

Feel how cozy and safe you are in your bear cave.

Take one more really long, slow breath in through your nose, and let it all the way out.

It’s proof that she’s using her passion to help students lead healthier, happier lives. And that — more than any album or book or show — is what Kira Willey wants to be known for.

Mark Your Calendars!

Catch a Kira Willey & Friends Rockin’ Yoga Concert at 10 a.m. on Friday, August 10, inside PBS39, as part of their Summer Jam. Can’t make it? Find all of her albums and mindful moments on her website, kirawilley.com/music; or watch Fireflies Musical Yoga for Kids at tinyurl.com/y76scloh.

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