Breathe In, Breathe Out: Yoga and Mindfulness in the Classroom
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2013 Issue
By Lisa Tran
Every morning when the school bell rings, kids across the country file into classrooms ready to learn the lessons of the day, but are they really ready? Often, students are distracted by their smart phones and tablets, concerned about family issues, stressed about classroom bullying, easily excitable, or simply anxious about academic expectations. How can we help these students prepare to tackle and absorb the day’s learning? We can ensure that they are healthy—not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too.
Mindfulness and yoga are becoming popular approaches in our classrooms and not for their über trendy appeal, but for their principles that encourage kids to engage their minds, connect with their bodies, and breathe. Using tangible and scientific examples, these new-to-the-classroom styles teach self-awareness and its ability to will positive outcomes. When we neutralize all the on-goings in a kid’s mind, then they are ready to learn.
Originating in India at least 2,500 years ago, yoga teaches participants to “focus solely on their bodies, becoming aware of how it feels, focusing on breath,” explains Janet Williams, a certified elementary educator and Hatha yoga instructor from Mississauga, Ontario. In Sanskrit, yoga means “to yoke” just like when two oxen are yoked together to plough a farmer’s field. “Yoga allows us to yoke our mind and body so they are working together and creating optimal health,” adds Williams. She has taught yoga since 1996 and today, specializes in children’s yoga through workshops and develops her own educational resources and instructional materials.
A guru in her own right, Williams emphasizes the incredible health benefits of yoga, especially for children, “It improves strength, flexibility, balance, and increases your overall sense of well-being.” She adds, “Kids are ready to learn because they would have oxygenated their brains with deep breathing. It’s also non-competitive, allowing children to be successful.”
The yoga poses themselves are easy to facilitate; whether in the school’s gymnasium on mats, on a small classroom carpet, on the grass under the shade of a tree, or even beside student desks. Comprehensive resources, like Williams’ book What I See, I Can Be, guide teachers on how to prompt children and suggest simpler pose variations. And when difficult to pronounce poses such as balasana and savasana are renamed to mouse pose and meadow pose (like you’re lying in an open meadow), kids are eager to flex their bodies into forms they can readily imagine. In a busy classroom full of young kids, yoga is excellent as a warm up or calm down exercise to help students unwind or regain their attention. “It calms them down and returns them to a balanced state of being,” Williams says.
The most important aspect of yoga is breathing. Slow, deep breaths, especially before a test or exam, send oxygen to the brain’s amygdala—the quick, but limited decision-making part of the brain. The amygdala controls emotions, telling us to fight, flight, or freeze. When we breathe deeply, the amygdala is calmed, and we are able to make rational decisions using other parts of the brain.
When faced with opposition to teaching yoga to children, Williams stresses that yoga is exercise and not a religion in any way. Instead, she draws parallels to professional athletes who “live and breathe” their sport, yet no one ever accuses them of indoctrination. Yoga is no different.
In Abbotsford, British Columbia, educator Julie Loland used a similar initiative in her Grade 5 class called Mindfulness. Teaching at Terry Fox Elementary, a greater needs school, Loland says, “I felt that kids came to school and were not ready to learn; they were battling stressful life situations.” She adds, “Many students didn’t care about learning, instead they wondered, ‘Where’s my next meal going to come from? Will my mom be there when I get home?’” Loland believes many kids came to school to forget and ignore their poverty, and not deal with it. She wanted to ensure “kids were open to the learning of the day.”
Mindfulness is defined by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn as, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”1 Coinciding with her Master’s research, Loland discovered Mindfulness and “hoped that [it] would be a solution to student stress, by enhancing social and emotional learning, promoting academic success and developing executive function.”2
Loland began introducing Mindfulness to her kids through breathing exercises, bringing their attention to the immediate experience. Her approach was secular and scientific, teaching the basic anatomy and physiology of the brain. The hippocampus, Loland informed students, controls memory. The amygdala makes quick, but emotional decisions, while the prefrontal cortex makes rational ones. Deep breathing calms the amygdala and allows us “to look at other options for decisions,” explained Loland to her students who fully grasped and embraced these new concepts.
At first, the concentrated breathing lasted only 30 seconds and gradually increased to 5 minutes. In comfortable positions, Loland guided students’ breathing, asking them to inhale through their nose and exhale through their mouth, watching their stomach rising and falling and being aware of only their breath. Loland encouraged students’ minds not to drift, but reassured them that it is okay if they do, as long as they recognize it and bring their minds back to the present moment. “The classroom was a calmer place. It was an amazing 30 seconds to get everyone into focus and have everyone on the same page,” recalls Loland.
Breathing and other exercises, such as guessing flavours of jellybeans, and actively listening to different sounds of the classroom taught students to be mindful of their senses and to self-regulate their thoughts. Loland also introduced a “Mindfulness bottle”—a basic pop bottle filled with water and glitter. Students shook the bottle when they felt upset or angry and watched the glitter slowly fall, effectively calming them and allowing them to think rationally.
Loland’s introductory Mindfulness activities were tangible and children easily recognized their newfound self-awareness. She applied these same techniques to problem solving, conflict resolution, and perspective. Students became mindful of their own thoughts and their surroundings, of their peers, and the control they had over them. The Mindfulness “experiment” produced amazing results for Loland’s students. “They [the mindfulness activities] were such simple things, but able to meet each kid at every stage and help them.”
In her written Master’s composition, Divided No More: A Living Inquiry Into Wholeness, Loland lists some benefits of Mindfulness: a relief of stress, ability to make effective decisions, ability to orient attention, physical and emotional regulation, a decrease in negative emotions, self-acceptance, and an overall improved learning environment.
Students also emotionally responded to Mindfulness in their journals. Many commented that it helped them tackle challenges, resolve disagreements, deal with anger and sadness, and re-evaluate situations. Some even candidly connected Mindfulness with their ability to cope with loss, pain, and tragedy.
Here are some excerpts of journal responses on Mindfulness from Loland’s students:
- I’m Allison and sometimes I have trouble settling down in class. Mindfulness helped me learn to calm down and relax… after recess or lunch, it was the hardest, but… mindfulness… helped me… focus on the project or assignment that we were working on in class.
- I’m Joanna and my dad died last year from cancer. Mindfulness helped me to understand that it is okay to be sad… [and] that there are also a lot of good things in my life and a lot of people that do love me and [understand] what I am going through.
- I’m Brennan and I was being bullied by a kid that lied a lot. Mindfulness helped me realize that I needed to solve this problem so I talked to my mom.
- I’m Christine and I was angry a lot and always alone at home and even at school. Mindfulness helped me to release some of my stress and anger and now… more people want to be around me because I’m not as angry and unhappy around them.
Like Williams, Loland feared Mindfulness would be opposed and rejected as religious. However, after seeking school approval, informing parents through a letter, and having an open discussion with students about the brain, the only true opposition she received was from the older “cool” kids, “Breathe, really?”
Mindfulness and yoga are much more than relaxation and breath. The exercises are so simple yet yield widespread impacts. They teach self-awareness and self-regulation, but are also mechanisms for accessing reason and memory rather than emotion—tools children do not currently have for learning. When kids engage their mind and bodies, when they respond positively, and when they apply their knowledge—they are succeeding. As for the kids who are not fully ready to learn, all we simply have to tell them is, breathe.
*Student names have been changed.
1 Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. University of Massachusetts Medical School, 2003, p. 145.
2 Loland, Julie. Divided No More: A living inquiry into wholeness. Simon Fraser University, Surrey, 2012, p. 3.