by Beth Reese, PhD, E-RYT, RCYT, YACEP
A few years ago I taught yoga and mindfulness at an urban Houston elementary school. The school was considered low-socioeconomic with a majority of English Language Learners. Additionally, It was a highly international and transient community. Growing up is already stressful enough without so many external factors.
During my “Health and Wellness” classes, students learned various breathing and concentration techniques. They also experienced singular yoga postures and flows or sequences of poses on yoga mats. I quickly realized that the success of my work and greatest impact in their lives would be for them to embrace and translate what they were learning on their yoga mats, to off-the-mats and into their daily lives. I shared the benefits of this work with teachers who eventually invited me to come into their classrooms to lead mindfulness and yoga with students seated at their desks. Here they could learn life-skills to become aware and self-regulate their body sensations, thoughts, emotions and energy levels amidst any circumstance. One of my favorite moments was with a 5th grader I will refer to here as Britta.
Britta was a smiler. She had a big grin with sparkling eyes to match. What was most remarkable about her smile was that it appeared through thick and thin; several years later her way of being is still an inspiration for me. I recall on one Monday morning that the school counselor let me know that Britta had spent the weekend with a foster family; her mom was hospitalized and her grandparents were not willing to take her.
I also recall on that Monday afternoon she came bouncing into my class exclaiming, “Dr. Reese! Dr. Reese! It worked! It worked!”
“Tell me what’s working, Britta!” I bounced back with her.
“Remember when you said we might get nervous when taking the test? And that we might feel it in our body? Well that happened! It happened!”
“Ok! Wow! How great that you noticed what was going on!” I shared in her enthusiasm.
“Oh that’s not the best part! Dr. Reese! Dr. Reese! I knew that meant the thinking part of my brain wasn’t working as well as it could, so I did what you suggested: flower power, some belly breaths, Shanti hug (seen left), hand-hat and a twist. And guess what?”
“What, Britta, what?” I joyfully egged her on.
“Just like you said, I was my own superhero! I did those actions, my brain turned on, and I ROCKED THAT TEST!”
I was so grateful for the connection between Britta and I, and, indeed, among many of the students and teachers. After all, the word “yoga” literally means to “yoke” or connect. More importantly, Britta and other students learned to connect to their own body sensations, thoughts, memories and feelings and understand they aren’t right or wrong, they just are. They also came to know that they could use mindfulness tools to manage their feelings and create a response. I taught the students about the brain’s emotional control center. When that control center starts to feel fear, it goes into freeze, flight, or fight mode. They learned that fearful, nervous, anxious brains have trouble focusing and learning new information, as well as re-accessing existing knowledge. With an understanding of all that’s happening—their body is reacting to a perceived threat—and a toolbox to self-regulate what they feel, the students were ready to help their brains shift away from that feeling of fear paired with habitual reactions of fueled anger and frustration. With these research-based mindful skills, they transform reactions into responsive actions that are grounding and calming. In the end, our yoga on and off the mat connected the students not only to themselves, but also to a way of being with one another—on and off the mat.
Here is a video that shows flower power, belly breaths, Shanti hug, hand-hat and a twist. Enjoy!