Keep your core tight!" Rupa Mehta calls to the students struggling to hold their bodies in the plank position.
“Hold it five, four, three, two, one,” she says as the group drops to the floor with a thud.
Mehta is known for putting her New York City-based clientele through her intense Nalini Method workout, which combines elements of Pilates, yoga, weight-lifting and cardio into one high-level fitness regimen.
But this class is made up of a cause much closer to her heart: NaliniKIDS.
What began as a gym class she taught as a volunteer through the New York City Service organization in a public school short on fitness funds has become a comprehensive program designed to improve both physical and emotional well-being of children. Since then, NaliniKIDS has been garnering significant attention from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office as well as the Clinton Global Initiative.
Mehta’s belief that having a strong mind, body and spirit will result in overall well-being. She lays out the concept in her book, “Connect to Your One,” which is the backbone of the curriculum that runs for 12 weeks in a Brooklyn public school.
The lessons taught in the book — which the class reads together — was written by Mehta in 2009.
“I see how it benefits adults,” Mehta says of the “Connect to Your One” philosophy, “and ‘I wish I had that at a younger age’ is what I always hear.”
With that in mind, Mehta and team of volunteers spend several hours each Tuesday to help her class of seventh graders improve their emotional literacy (mind), become stronger physically (body) and look for opportunities to help those around them (heart).
“I feel like this book approaches something that is very needed in schools,” Mehta explains. “It’s emotional health done in a very academic, narrative, fun way."
Seventh grade teacher Brittany Chance says the lessons are proving effective.
“It definitely affects attendance, at least on Tuesdays,” she explains. “The students who are in the program, they want to be here.”
It’s that kind of impact that Mehta hopes will eventually carry into other schools. Next year, she plans to begin a teacher training program that will allow that to happen.
But for someone who has built a program that closely adheres to her personal beliefs, Mehta says she’s “comfortable relinquishing everything” in order to expand.
“My bigger goal here is to impact the public school system,” she explains. “I want to build a team of smart and committed educators,” she adds.
Of course, seeing her vision come to fruition is something that requires patience. “It’s easy and natural to think about expanding this quick,” Mehta explains. “But I want to build this in the right way, and that means you gotta pace yourself.”