Yoga in the Classroom Slows Down Students for Increased Success: The Yoga Brain Break
by Rebecca C. Tilhou
YSN Vol. 6, No. 1 (Feb. 2018)
In today’s elementary schools, the demands of curricula are becoming increasingly intense. Teachers are expected to stick to tight schedules and meet required minutes of instruction in every subject area. Transitions must be orderly and quick, almost non-existent. Instructional minutes are like fast-paced seconds, gleaning many objectives in short amounts of time. The problem with minutes is that strict adherence to them upholds the ideal that students must learn in a predetermined amount of time, to pass state-mandated tests. What curricula is not taking into account is the child’s saturated mind, where it has absorbed all it can in those minutes, and needs the chance to reset. Otherwise, stress levels can increase and result in less ability to focus and increased behavioral problems that impede future instruction.
Using transition periods for brain breaks can be a quick, powerful way for young minds to have the chance to recharge. More and more teachers are turning to yoga to give kids the breaks they need in a positive, focused way during their educational day. Yoga allows for stretching the body and all of its muscles, breathing, balancing, gross motor functioning and focus, and can counteract increased levels of stress and fatigue. The increased blood flow throughout the body is like a reset button for students and teachers alike.
In my own most recent classroom—a second grade classroom full of busy children with varying levels of physical activity needs and attention—I found it necessary to sacrifice five minutes of instructional time during transitions to stop and practice yoga with my students. Being a practitioner of yoga for many years, I could select poses from my own experience to share with my students. However, sometimes, my own saturated mind needed assistance!
Frequently, I turned to GoNoodle.com, an excellent app for educators and students. This website, along with providing guided dance from hip hop to the macarena, has ample three- to four-minute yoga and mindfulness videos that are perfect for students who need a brain break. The yoga videos range from deep breathwork for empowerment (Ha Kriya), creating excitement and invigoration, to difficult balancing, warrior poses, and chants, such as: I am strong. I am powerful. I am kind. Some videos aim to calm students down with slow movements and empathetic language. Depending on the energy level the teacher wants from his students or the needs he sees they have on any particular day, he can select a video accordingly.
When students are allowed to participate in yoga, not only does their energy level change, but attitude and affect do as well. Even if a child in my class ever chose not to participate in a yoga flow with her peers and teacher, simply watching and listening to the guided directions in a calm voice or watching her classmates tip over in tree pose caused a reset in the mind. Students feel a sense of comradery when they are able to spread around a dimly lit classroom and become “warriors” together. Sometimes even giggles can erupt amidst the intense focus. Every yoga practice, just as every day, is different.
Along with the blood flow from the physical activity and the team spirit of participating together, yoga can cause students to feel challenged and even frustrated when they realize how difficult it can be to hold a pose for an extended time. They realize the amount of strength that is needed and that strength can filter into other areas of their life. The teacher can lead a great conversation with the question “How did you handle the frustration you felt when it became really hard?” As a classroom teacher, I enjoyed impressing my students with my ability to use strength and focus in the face of frustration, and used my own yoga to help students get past their own obstacles.
One young girl was showing signs of heightened anxiety one day early in our knowing each other. She kept remarking during a math activity that she felt like the room was closing in on her and she needed to get out. I remained calm, yet with a sense of play in my eyes, and told her that I would stand in tree pose near her until she was able to complete her task. She looked at me strangely, as we hadn’t known each other long, but the tips of her lips showed a small curve of a smile. She carried on, probably in disbelief, while I held the pose until she completed the task. The next time we worked on math in class, she didn’t express the same anxiety as before. Thus, even the simple act of witnessing a symmetrical, sustained yoga pose seemed to create a shift in attitude and energy, and the fact that I did it just for her.
In the content-packed classrooms of 21st century learning, teachers and students alike feel pressure to perform, and are increasingly needing outlets during the school day. With ongoing pressure from testing and curricula that is constantly pushing for results, we need to have an awareness of the effects of that pressure. A constantly over-saturated mind can lead to burn-out and decreased productivity, which is certainly opposite the intent of those tightly woven minutes of the instructional day. The collective goal is student success and sustainability of teachers. Moments for yoga brain breaks offer children and teachers the chance to sustain themselves and continue on the path of deep teaching and learning.
Rebecca Tilhou is a doctoral student working toward her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Her current research focus seeks to explore how taking time for mindfulness activities prior to lessons and during transitions can enhance cognition and academic achievement with elementary students. Having been an elementary teacher in grades kindergarten through fifth grade for over a decade, she has had the opportunity to incorporate her own passion for yoga and mindfulness into her past classrooms, and see the positive effects from taking time for these activities. Her students especially enjoyed her headstands when she was particularly proud of them.