For years before becoming a parent, I worked as an Occupational Therapist with children, holding the highest intentions for their well-being. In the 1980s, before mindfulness or mind-body therapy was well-known, I trained as a master teacher in mind-body studies and learned ways to quiet the mind and open the heart. These experiences have built a tool box for me to apply in parenting and, ultimately, teaching.
Implementing breathing practices in schools: Moving through anxiety and trauma in order to focus
Yoga is a broad term that includes meditation and contemplation. My reference to yoga here is referring to the physical exercises that help us tune in to ourselves, calm down and manage our emotions as we focus on our body in the present moment. Yoga can be offered for a brief sequence at school circle time bringing arms up over head with the breath, or as a short break after sitting for a prolonged period by a twisting movement in a chair combined with an inhale and exhale. It can be a 20-minute unit of active movement while listening to quiet music, combined with stories, or woven into the day allowing movement and breathing. It can help to emotionally regulate and orient children with high energy levels and difficulty focusing. Use a simple yoga pose such as “the mountain”, where students assume a strong but relaxed standing pose, and give instructions to slowly breathe in and out several times. The activity will make the room noticeably quieter and the students’ minds clearer. Verbal cues can be given to notice where the feet touch the floor and to let any tension go in the neck. A quick body check-in to let go of any tension is to swing the arms. As a focus tool, listen to a bell until it is no longer audible.
Yogic breathing is one of the best-kept secrets for any educator’s toolbox. In a preschool circle or elementary classroom, taking a breathing break will allow the mind to become quieter and shift the nervous system from the fight or flight response to responding calmly. Once that occurs, we take in information more easily as we are calmer.
Breathing activities and meditation are used to transform schools that have high detention rates, a high percentage of teens that have friends who died from gang violence and significant drop out rates. Teacher burn- out and inability to retain teachers often accompany these problem schools. Yet when the program “Quiet time” is implemented in the schools, transformation happens. Teens learn tools to manage stress with yoga and breathing and start performing better academically as they have better control of their thoughts and feelings. Detention rates go down. It can be as simple as 15 minutes at the beginning and end of the day that bring these changes. By organizing a school-wide quiet time program which allows only meditation, studying or just doing nothing at all, youths are encouraged to participate in yogic breathing. This brings stress relief and quiet contemplation free from smartphones and computers.
“Quiet time” is working for many schools across the country. A variation can be designed when it is not possible to implement a school-wide program. The “school to prison pipeline” unconsciously plagues urban schools. The youth have no tools to fight back against stress, poverty and disenchantment. The student’s ability to improve academically in high stress environments deflates easily. Given these circumstances, youths easily leave school and get criminal records early on, setting themselves up for the “school to prison pipeline”, instead of finishing school and gaining skills to go out into the world. Children can start early in preschool to shift to a wellness culture with practicing yoga in the schools and home, and mindfulness principles of calmly tuning in and witnessing what we are thinking and feeling.
When schools just use 5 minute meditations daily in a class, yoga poses (or stances) as movement breaks (specific times for movement) to improve focus, or implement the full “Quiet time” program school wide, there is a dramatic impact on breaking the cycle of disempowerment. Once students are taught how to watch their thoughts and how their personal reaction to stress is the issue, not the stress itself, the student is empowered to transform the impact stress has on them. Whether disenfranchised youths or high achievers, from preschoolers to high school, our children need tools of empowerment to deal with the extraordinary stress they all live with.
Classroom physical movement breaks: Yoga interventions
Using yoga interventions, such as a standing or a seated backbend, can help students to focus and maintain a high level of attention for classroom work. Using the computer, writing and reading are all forward bending positions and cause the shoulders and the neck to become tense. It is harder to maintain good handwriting and attention after a long period of sitting. Several quick interventions might be to assume a standing pose. Bend forward with the arms stretched and grasp the desk and stretch out with a flat back. Then take a standing lunge pose and raise both arms up by your ears with a slight back bend. While seated, fold the arms in back of the neck, clasping the hands and bring the elbows forward to touch in front. Then move the elbows back to arch the neck back allowing for a back bend in a chair that takes 30 seconds- 2 minutes. This will allow the student to take a breath, clear the mind, erase fatigue and resume again with more concentration.
Embodied communication and mindfulness build social skills
There are two mindfulness concepts that build social skills: 1) Not judging our own thoughts as good or bad, but simply letting thoughts float by like a cloud without being disturbed by them, and 2) Non-striving, which is more about allowing and relaxing into an experience. These qualities allow us to be present to our feelings and body in the moment and what is immediately around us instead of always wishing we were somewhere else either mentally or physically. When we practice non-judging and non- striving, we are able to sense and feel our way, a more intuitive way of being.
The practice of watching thoughts is
1. Meditation on a Gentle Breeze
Close your eyes and watch your thoughts pass by like a gentle breeze. Let each thought go and hold on the breath as you inhale and exhale.
2. Effectiveness of a School-Based Yoga Program on Adolescent Mental Health, Stress Coping Strategies, and Attitudes toward Violence: Findings from a High- Risk Sample:
Students who participated in the wellness yoga-based program “Transformative Life Research Skills” using yoga, breathing and meditation, showed results in the reduction in anxiety, depression and psychological stress. The results showed that the participants were less likely to want to take revenge in response to personal anger and had less hostility than the students in the other study that didn’t do the program. The study showed evidence of the potential of the wellness yoga based program to influence students’ social-emotional outcomes among at risk youth. ”Journal of Applied School Psychology, www. tandfonline.com/toc/wapp20/30/1″ Issue 1, Feb 14, 2014.
3. Here are a couple of personal examples of the author’s on how parents can use meditation to help their children:
A decision was needed. All the choices were emotional. I sat with my daughter and we mediated on the situation. After 10 minutes we wrote what we felt from our intuition. We talked about our feelings and discussed the next step.
4. I was on Skype with a distraught teenage client in another country. I asked her to breathe with me and to find her feet and adjust her posture. She stopped crying and grounded herself in that process so she could think more clearly. She began to talk then and integrated logic with her feelings. Healthy You Magazine ~ November – December 2014 25
a way of doing open- eyed meditation and slows our reactive nature. As we practice the mountain pose, we tune in and feel the body more fully in this moment. If we preoccupy ourselves with only thoughts we are disassociated from our feelings and self. This also contributes to our social communication. We can get in touch with where in the body we are feeling tension, stress or discomfort. When we are experiencing trauma, anxiety or stress, the body can’t hide it. We might repress the feelings, but it’s always there in our body’s tissues and can’t be denied. As we practice this self-inquiry and the physical postures of yoga, we connect from the head to the feet, the crown of head to the sacrum and from the lungs and heart out to the limbs. Noticing our thoughts and where we are feeling the stress in the body, we open to a new level of awareness that can help us be better communicators rather than holding all negative feelings and locking rage in the body. This allows us to be more fully present to the moment socially as it quiets the mind.
Using yoga in schools and homes helps students thrive
With the increase of: school testing, overuse of smartphones, and the “on demand” work culture in which we all live, it’s no wonder parents and students feel stressed. This takes away from children’s healthy time outdoors and the natural quieting of the mind from physical activity spent in nature. Although, clearly, computers are effective educationally, there is a Kaiser Foundation study stating kids today are spending on the average 7 hours on the computer a day after school. When we add in challenges of the economy, inter-city issues and urban stress of violence, divorce and single-family households, the capacity for our children to thrive academically becomes more threatened. Yoga becomes vital tool that supports our children in fighting stress. When schools and families adopt a wellness culture which supports the brain and body connection, we can all work together to give students, families and schools our best effort.
Study- Kaiser Foundation
Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Jan 2010. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Menlo Park Ca.
Niroga Institute Fairmont CA.
Barbara Neiman is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Yoga and Mindfulness teacher, Body-Mind Centering Practitioner, and a National Presenter & Educator. She is the author of The Adopted Teen Workbook, My Calm Place Card Deck and Mindfulness and Yoga Skills for Children and Adolescents. She offers courses and coaching online and in-person to schools and agencies around the country.