Yoga for mindfulness in the elementary classroom

What’s the big deal about yoga, anyway? Isn’t it just a bunch of people rolling around on mats, twisting themselves into pretzels or passing out in an overheated room?

Far from it. Any yogi will tell you it’s not a form of exercise, but a way of life. As a practitioner of yoga for over 20 years, it makes me feel great, reduces my stress levels, clears my mind, helps cultivate stillness, and reduces my muscle tension. I hadn’t thought about utilizing it in my elementary classroom until last year when I took a course to become a children’s yoga instructor. Yoga was such a large part of my private life, I can’t believe it hadn’t spilled over into other parts as well. Why not integrate some simple yoga poses and breathing techniques into classroom transitions or before a test?

The yogic lifestyle consists of four pillars, each working together to create a mindful whole. One of the pillars is Achar, or your daily rituals. Rituals require a certain amount of focus, or mindfulness. Without that focus, you begin to miss the point of the activity or perform it absentmindedly. How often can you say you don’t remember the drive home, or brushing your teeth? Another is Vichar, which are your thoughts. The more often you have positive thoughts you will find the quality of them increase and the quantity of negativity lessen. These pillars work together to create a balanced lifestyle. The ultimate goal of yoga is inner knowledge; your body, mind and thoughts are all a part of nature. There is no higher knowledge than that of self.

“Be faithful in small things you do, because it is in them that your strength lies.” — Mother Teresa.

Yoga, or union, has a number of health benefits: increased flexibility and balance, a boosted immune system, increased muscle tone and strength, weight loss, cardio and circulatory health, improved respiration, more energy, and protection from injury, to name a few. Students also benefit through increased focus, body awareness and development of gross motor skills, stress management, increased confidence, a positive self-image, and learning how to use their bodies in a healthy way. They will also practice mindfulness about other living things and in regard to food.

After just one session, my students reported a 58 percent decrease in pain, 68 percent reduction in stress and 68 percent increase in relaxation. It is also an easy way to integrate mindfulness into your daily routine. Cultivating mindfulness has received more attention recently due to its association with improved psychological well- being and reduction in stress-related health disorders. It also increases capacity for feeling satisfied with life, enjoying the everyday pleasures, generates a greater capacity for dealing with adverse events, and reduces the likelihood of getting caught up in worries about the future or past regrets. As a teacher or parent, you may be thinking, “My child/student doesn’t need to worry about this yet, do they?” In actuality, they are laying foundation for the future.

Emerging research also suggests that yoga can help students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by improving attentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. It may also boost performance in school, and a number of schools are introducing it to physical education or classroom curriculum.

Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present, and accepting it without judgment. It is also considered to be a key element in happiness. While it does have its roots in Buddhism, most religions include some type of meditation technique that helps to shift your thoughts away from your usual preoccupations toward an appreciation of the moment and a larger perspective on life. In general, practicing mindfulness brings improvements in both physical and psychological well-being in addition to bringing about positive changes in health attitudes and behaviors.

Aside from practicing yoga asanas, how can we bring more mindfulness into our daily lives? One method is through basic meditation where students sit quietly and either focus on natural breathing or on a word, or mantra, repeated silently. Another is to concentrate on subtle body sensations such as an itch or tingling without judgement and letting them pass. Food may also be introduced in a sensory manner, where an item is presented and students are directed to notice the color, texture, scent and weight. They then will savor the item, bringing an awareness to the food they consume. Also, through focusing attention on the moment-to-moment sensations during everyday activities; slowing down, doing one thing at a time, and giving it your full attention will allow for full presence and involve all of your senses.

Depending on the age of students engaging in yoga, there may also be included activities that one may question how they relate to yoga. Younger students are just learning about their bodies; how to move them and what they are capable of. They engage in active storytelling, dance, and other sensation building activities. The aim is not to hold a serious yoga class, but to bring focus, mindfulness, reach multiple intelligences, and overall, have fun!

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier, not that the task itself has become easier but that our ability to perform it has improved.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

BIO: Catherine Mihowich is a Grade 3 teacher with an M.Sc Education at the International School Saigon Pearl (ISSP).