As a teacher, I love incorporating breathing and yoga into my classes. I don’t attempt anything too complex. (Who wants to do low plank on a high school floor?) But I have found that teaching a few strategies can help students (and me) relax, refocus and re-energize.
Simple breathing is a wonderful place to start. As learners, we need to be conscious of breathing since we can become sluggish and depressed when our brains are deprived of oxygen. On a Friday afternoon, when students become chatty and distracted, I turn off the lights for a minute of quiet, calming breath. Julie Daniel, a speech pathologist for North Syracuse Central Schools and a certified YogaKids and Grounded Kids instructor (www.yogakidsofcny.com), likes to have her pupils try a “Take 5” breath. She asks children to hold up their hands and inhale as they lift each finger and silently count to five. They exhale to the count of five as they fold their fingers back into their palms.
Daniel also likes to teach visualization. A “Balloon Breath” refreshes the mind. Children close their eyes and imagine a balloon in their laps steadily inflating as they breathe in through their noses. Their arms encircle the balloon as it rises and falls. Visualization is a strategy I learned from my yoga teacher, Lisa Sarick at CNY Yoga Center. For my SAT preparation class, students are often terribly nervous about taking the test. Simple breathing helps to calm them, and I have them visualize themselves feeling confident as they effortlessly complete the test.
Besides breathing, I like to teach a few poses to kids. Whenever I sit for most of the day, I am struck by how stiff and uncomfortable I feel and how distracted and unproductive I become. And yet we ask kids to remain in their seats for extended amounts of time while still expecting them to learn and perform.
Erin O’Toole, a yoga instructor at CNY Healing Arts and a fellow high school teacher, recommends ragdoll pose. Students stand and fold at the waist, letting their arms dangle toward their toes. The goal isn’t to touch the toes but rather to let the stomach rest along the thighs. Because it’s an inversion (a head-down pose), it will refocus and stimulate the brain. O’Toole even shows students how they can do this posture while seated at their desks. She invites students to sit with both feet flat on the floor and fold the top of the body over the legs, the stomach resting on the thighs.
Daniel likes to teach a seated twist. She guides students to sit tall in their chairs. They twist to the right, placing their right hands on the seat of the chair, their left hands on their right knees. They remain in the twist and breathe. Each time they breathe in, she asks them to visualize their spines growing longer. When they breathe out, she asks them to deepen the twist. Then, they switch sides. Twists stimulate our nervous system, which allow us to remain calm and focused, ideal for learning.
Both Daniel and O’Toole suggest tree pose for building focus and concentration. Invite kids to stand tall. They may visualize roots growing from their feet that connect them to the ground. They bend one leg and place the sole of that foot on the inside of the standing leg. While kids may start at the ankle, as they grow more confident and balanced, they may lift the foot higher on the leg. Some like to keep their hands in prayer position at their chest. Personally, I enjoy sending my arms into the air and imagine that they are the branches to the tree, my hands actively reaching toward a sun. Hold for several breaths and switch legs.
Yoga, meditation and steady breathing help calm, focus, and energize us. In our test-driven culture, teachers are pressured to cover more and more material and it’s difficult to create conditions where learning happens best. But these techniques of movement and breath can be done at home too. During a homework break, your child might slip into rag doll pose. Or, during a frustrating series of math problems, she might try a few calming breaths. Helping your child attend to her body and breath will enhance her health as well as her capacity to learn.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.