Balance. Focus. Flexibility. Six years ago, an English teacher brought a secret weapon to Morse High School’s athletics department: the ancient practice of yoga.
Now, as the student body rushes to sign up for her highly anticipated yoga elective in the fall, Johnna Stanton has suited up for a competition of her own.
Stanton, who has taught English at Morse for 21 years, is fighting for a spot in the semifinals of the Yoga Warrior competition. Should she prevail in a series of online votes, Stanton will earn a spread in Yoga Journal magazine and a $10,000 prize, which she hopes to use to support yoga for midcoast teens.
“I feel like our cause is such a good one,” said Stanton, who has already outlasted 99% of the competition’s entrants. “We should win because that money benefits everybody.”
Stanton was skeptical when a doctor suggested she try yoga 18 years ago. She associated the practice, which was developed more than 5,000 years ago, with new-age pseudo-science, like so-called healing crystals.
Still, she was desperate for a cure for her hip problems, which caused enough pain to keep her up at night. She went to a class and was shocked to see immediate results.
“The pain was gone, and it took maybe a month,” Stanton said. “I really started feeling better than I’ve felt in my adult life.”
A little over a decade later, Stanton decided to combine her loves of yoga and teaching. She began instructing weekly classes at Ebb and Flow Yoga in Bath and started offering free sessions for Morse teams.
“I thought, ‘If I can help them prevent the injuries that I had, wouldn’t that be something?’” Stanton said.
Though it took a while for coaches and students to warm to the idea of yoga, Stanton now works with most of the school’s teams, she said. During the fall and spring seasons, she teaches about two classes per week at Morse.
“It’s a really good thing for athletes to do once in a while,” said Nathan Priest, the school’s athletics director and dean of students. “There’s always going to be the skeptics, but at the same time I think kids have really come around to the idea.”
Emma Roth-Wells, a former Morse lacrosse player and member of the class of 2020, said weekly sessions with Stanton gave her teammates a satisfying, low-impact workout while they recovered after game days. But she also highlighted the mental health benefits of the practice.
“Being a teen can be really hard,” said Roth-Wells, now a student at Mt. Holyoke College. “To have just an hour every few days to just do yoga and have time to myself was really important and good for my stress and my body.”
Stanton hopes that she’ll be able to help promote mindfulness and reduce stress among non-athletes at Morse through an upcoming elective course she’ll teach this fall. More than 50 students have already signed up for the class, which will include three hour-long sessions each week.
“We’re in the middle of this mental health crisis,” said Stanton, who added yoga has helped her become a calmer, less anxious person. “I know that kids are not feeling good. They seem to understand that yoga is one way to feel better.”
That drive to help students has motivated Stanton to pursue the title of “Yoga Warrior” and the $10,000 prize that comes with it, she said. Her frequent social media posts have rallied supporters to carry her through several rounds of online voting in the competition, which benefits the Veterans Yoga Project.
Now a quarterfinalist, Stanton faces a stiff test: she must finish first in her group of 12 competitors in order to make the semifinal round. As of Tuesday evening, she sat in fourth place, two days before voting closes at 7 p.m. on April 28.
It’s not easy for a Maine English teacher to compete in an online vote against Instagram yogis with huge followings, Stanton said. But she and her Morse supporters hope Stanton’s plan to fund free yoga classes and buy yoga supplies for midcoast teens will inspire enough support to push her over the finish line.
“Having the opportunity to maybe win this competition and $10,000 and putting that back into the Bath community – that’s just going to reach even more people,” Priest said. “That could be a really good thing, not just for the Morse community, but for the area in general.”
“I’m so happy that she’s made it this far,” Roth-Wells agreed. “I hope everyone keeps voting for her.”