The story of Jo King: a pioneer of yoga in schools who has received the British Empire Medal for her services to children and young people
While many yoga teachers suffered during the lockdowns, Jo King from Monewden, near Framlingham in Suffolk, rallied to keep yoga on the school curriculum, a welcome distraction for all during a difficult and uncertain time.
A pioneer of yoga in schools, the yoga instructor has now been recognised for all her efforts after being awarded the British Empire Medal – an award for meritorious civil or military service worthy of recognition by the Crown.
It's the icing on the cake for a person who has dedicated her life to helping children gain joy and hope through yoga.
King received her BEM last year for her services to children and young people. The award is given to those who have gone beyond the call of duty to serve their local community. She was nominated following a campaign led by the schools whose pupils she supported through the lockdowns.
Yoga is something she took to from an early age herself, inspired by her mum's own passion for yoga. Attending her first class with her mum at the age of 18, it was instant love.
"Linking breath and movement was the first time that I felt the connection between my mind and my body," she says. "As an artist, it helped me to follow my heart to bring creativity back onto the school curriculum. My mum was extremely supportive of my ambition and I still treasure the 'Light On Yoga' book by Iyengar in which she inscribed the words: 'Follow your dreams and do you what you love'."
Encouraged by her supportive family and her yoga teacher, Sue Staziker, she was accepted from hundreds of applicants to train as a yoga teacher with the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) under the tutelage of Tara Fraser and Sarah Mcintosh. Her passion blossomed and after completing her BWY Diploma in 2000, she went on to study special needs yoga for children with Jo Jyoti Manuel and yoga therapy with Yoga Campus.
Determined to bring yoga to vulnerable children, King started teaching yoga at her former primary school in Leiston in 2002, where she earned the nickname 'Yoga Jo'.
"Yoga in schools was relatively unknown in those days. I would typically teach a sun salutation with children and their parents before school started and again at the end of the day. I would introduce elements of yoga into the art and drama workshops that I taught, and as time went by, yoga became very popular with both the children and the teachers."
Demand for her creative yoga sessions grew. She then started teaching at the Centre Academy School for Children with Special Needs, Charsfield Primary School, Middleton Montessori preschool, the Granary nursery in Framlingham, Easton Primary School and preschool at Easton Farm Park and Earl Soham primary school. She was involved in 'thrive' programmes to help children with different challenges to successfully transition to secondary education. Saddened by the lack of yoga on the secondary school curriculum, year seven children flocked to bring 'Yoga Jo' back into their classrooms, and it wasn't long before the popular instructor was teaching at secondary level too.
This has been a real blessing for me. Having seen my own son's struggles with academia and the feeling of his creativity being stripped, I believe that the education system should have more of an emphasis on mental and emotional wellbeing. I was determined to continue my work in helping all children develop strength and flexibility in their bodies, which helps to boost their confidence and self-esteem. It is wonderful to see that through the practice of yoga children and young people can discover a quiet space inside themselves. Feeling calm, relaxed and centred becomes a vital part of their identity."
When Covid-19 struck, it heightened the vulnerability of children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with learning difficulties, where face-to-face safeguarding and support was important. Schools needed to keep consistency in learning so called on 'Yoga Jo' to put zoom yoga on the timetable. Every week, dozens of children beamed into Cherry Tree Farmhouse, where King would work her yoga magic.
As a backdrop for her zoom classes, she asked the children to send her artwork to express how yoga made them feel. She then created an art frame to display their work. She was inundated with pictures, but a particularly poignant one stood out.
"I was deeply inspired by a little girl who had drawn a picture of herself on a mountain with a swirling storm behind her, standing in tree pose. The calm before the storm had particular significance for that child," she says.
During this time, families did come together with one father able to build a special bond with his daughter through the practice of yoga. It was heart-warming. I also taught classes in-school for key workers' children and they were excited to see their classmates on zoom."
As the letters of gratitude poured in, Easton Primary School started a campaign to get King recognised for her services to children during the pandemic. After approaching other schools and all of King's former yoga pupils, letters were sent to the Cabinet Office. In April 2022, she found out that their efforts had been successful as she was awarded a British Empire Medal.
"My heart felt plump with gratitude. I have always wanted recognition for yoga in schools but didn't anticipate that I would get the recognition myself! It was a difficult time for everyone and the collective anxiety was immense. I feel blessed that I was able to continue helping the children during this time.”
After receiving the award from HM Lord-Lieutenant of Suffolk, Clare, Countess of Euston, King has received many applications for work experience and has even inspired a former pupil to train to become a yoga teacher.
"I am greatly encouraged by my former students wanting to teach yoga and I am hoping to set up a course programme with the BWY to train others to work in schools and educational settings," she says. "The opportunity to bring yoga, meditation and wellbeing to schools is greatly beneficial to staff, students and their parents too who often learn from their children!"
Connect with Jo King on Instagram @cherrytreeyogajo