There’s no denying it, it’s pretty challenging to be a kid these days. With the onslaught of social media and its distractions, temptations and tendency to overstimulate young brains, as well as peer and school pressure, it’s no wonder that children are showing early signs of stress and stress-related challenges.
There’s an increase in both parents needing, or choosing, to work full time which often means young children start day care earlier, resulting in increases in anxiety (separation anxiety) and stress, even in our youngest.
Home stress is an issue too – divorce, financial, work - and teachers are stressed with burnout rates being the highest to date. We’ve also faced the Covid 19 pandemic which kept families in lockdown navigating their way through home schooling and many forms of new stressors.
Children absorb the stress of their parents and adults around them and bring it into the home and classroom.
So, it’s no wonder that classrooms are becoming stress pools, drowning in cortisol and adrenaline, the hormones that the body produces when we are anxious, angry, upset, scared, worried or sad. It’s our body’s way of attempting to protect us.
What follows is a symphony of stress and dis-tress – heart rate increases, breathing shallows, jaws clench and shoulders and upper back tightens. Eye muscles expand, resulting in an inability to focus. Blood moves away from the brain to the bigger muscles that would, if we were threatened, help us to run from danger (the fight/flight response). And if there is no release point for this build-up of hormones, stress becomes chronic. I call this Sympathetic Nervous System overdrive.
For much of the day, primary students are expected to sit still, often for extended periods, hunched over their desks, which further reduces deep breathing capacity and causes restlessness (and possible misbehaviour).
Not a good recipe for a healthy classroom.
But there is a solution. Just a few minutes of mindful movement and deep breathing overrides the stress response, halting the flight-fight hormone production. Yoga’s strengthening, lengthening, twisting, bending and stretching, coupled with smooth breaths, creates mental and physical focus and, very quickly (in fact immediately), helps students (and teachers) to feel more vibrant, less reactive, more interested and able to concentrate better and for longer. It stimulates kindness, both to oneself and to others. The Para-Sympathetic arm of the nervous system (rest and digest), starts to kick in.
Yoga, a Sanskrit word, means union or ‘to yoke’; when we yoke our body, breath and mind we feel more connected and compassionate to ourselves, others, and the world around us.
Coupled with deep breathing, mindfulness and visualisation, yoga is a low-cost, healthy and fun option for helping students to feel good about themselves, both inside and out. In a world that is often very chaotic and over-stimulating for all of us, especially kids, it’s important to offer what I call Peace Pauses – minutes where students and teachers can be drawn back into the present… to re-set.
In conjunction with academics, my vision is that schools become places where students’ full potentials are nurtured, and they develop holistically, growing into whole human beings - creative and critical thinkers and learners; self aware; and kind, compassionate citizens of the classroom, their community and the world.
Teachers don’t have to be yogis to introduce students to yoga and all its gifts. Every kind of body can do yoga – physically challenged, the elderly, people in wheelchairs, hospital beds and so on. We are all born naturally doing yoga. From infancy, we push up from our belly into cobra pose. We naturally lift our feet into the air into dead bug pose or pull our feet towards our mouth.
Weaving Peace Pauses into classroom for just a few minutes each day will keep teachers and students feeling balanced, strong, flexible and calm – emotionally and physically. It will also keep students connected to each other and their learning, while creating a more conscious environment.
In a typical Peace Pause, students may bend, stretch, balance, twist, and maybe even turn upside-down. They are introduced to the ‘magic’ of their breath through breathing experiences that either energise or bring calm. Bones align and muscles lengthen and strengthen; lymphatic flow is enhanced, boosting the immune system; the nervous system awakens or settles as fresh oxygen fills the body; the mind calms or is refreshed. This is the science of Yoga – a union of Body – Breath – Mind.
The gifts: students learn tools to self-regulate and to better manage their emotions; their focus and concentration improves; they become more socially and emotionally intelligent. It is this more balanced state that fosters a greater sense of wellbeing – for oneself, others, the environment and the world.
And you don’t need a huge space either – there is Chair Yoga which can be just as beneficial in a linear classroom setting.
Providing visualization experiences – Imagination Vacations - stimulates imagination and creativity, in addition to welcoming stillness and an inner quiet. Meditation, too, invites senses to be explored – what is seen / heard / tasted / felt / smelled in a mindful way. The ‘monkey mind’ has an opportunity to settle and to focus. These experiences are beneficial to all and can be particularly beneficial to students with learning difficulties and behavior issues. The breathing exercises act as a natural relaxant for all children, and for those with Attention Deficit Disorder, the movements are particularly useful in strengthening the muscles of those with low muscle tone or poor co-ordination.
With the upsurge of hand-held devices, often being used by children as young as one, the propensity for spinal defects and digestion issues as they grow, due to poor posture and constant slouching, is huge. Yoga helps to combat that as students develop greater core strength and an awareness of how, and why, it is important to have a good and strong posture.
The non-competitive aspects of yoga encourage students of all strengths and abilities to participate. In fact, it welcomes those who may not be naturally sporty because it focuses on the inner self and does not place emphasis on competition. It is extremely empowering, giving them added strength and flexibility as well as boosting their self esteem.
Yoga also teaches students the language associated with their bodies. They learn the names of the muscle groups; they learn about their lungs and their breath; they get to know all the names of their body parts and understand why a good posture aids digestion. Alongside the many physical benefits of yoga, both the left and right hemispheres of the brain are continuously stimulated, cultivating creative and critical thinkers. All of these foster holistic learning environments, and cultivates social and emotional intelligence while nurturing students’ mind, body and spirit.
It is important to note too, that Yoga is not affiliated to any religion or belief system. It is a science; not a religious path. Yoga is for you, about you and in you – the person experiencing a union of body, breath and mind.
Daily doses of yoga and deep breathing helps to ease anxiety and tension, calm an overactive mind and body, or boost energy when students are listless and tired. It gives them an outlet to express themselves and to build a connection between what they hear, feel and do. When students have healthy body awareness, they feel more confident and strong, enjoy greater self esteem and a stronger posture which fosters deeper breathing, better digestion and quiet strength. When they have tools to self regulate they have less need to misbehave, to be unkind or unco-operative.
Yoga, and all its gifts, encourages students to discover their inner potential in a non-threatening and more conscious environment, and to feel good about themselves, both inside and out. And it helps our teachers too teacher, to nourish themselves, and enjoy what they love to do – nurture their students.
“Movement, a natural process of life, is now understood to be essential to learning, creative thought, high level formal reasoning and to our ability to understand and act altruistically towards all those that share our world. It is time to consciously bring integrative movement back into every aspect of our lives and realize that something as simple and natural can be a source of miracles.” Smart Moves: Why Learning is not all in your Head; Carla Hannaford, PHD; 2005
Beth Borowsky is an educator, yoga teacher, teacher trainer and mother of 2 adult daughters. She has been teaching kids yoga and training yoga teachers to teach kids yoga since 2005.
Her company, The Karma Class, advocates building a new class of citizen – A Karma Class Citizen - changing classroom climates by nourishing teachers to nurture our youth to become the best version of themselves, one breath at a time.
Their NESA accredited workshop, A Karma Classroom, has trained hundreds of Early Childhood and Primary teachers to weave Yoga, Breath and Mindfulness into the classroom for just minutes of the day every day.
The Karma Class also has a free and membership based online program offering a suite of Kids Yoga Classes and Mindful activities for ages 2+ to keep homes healthy, calm and compassionate. Visit www.thekarmaclass.com