February 20, 2014

Volcano, Lemon Toes, Shavasana: Mindfulness through Yoga

True story: I recently met a monk at a workshop for business leaders. 

A former monk to be precise, who was launching a venture to bring mindfulness seminars to corporate America. He was a fascinating man, someone who exuded peace and calmness. There is a growing movement here in Boulder and across the country to bring mindfulness and meditation to traditionally competitive places.

A few Friends’ School parents have sent me information about a new book Mindful Parenting: Simple and Powerful Solutions for Raising Creative, Engaged, Happy Kids in Today’s Hectic World by Colorado author Kristen Race.  Associate Head of School Mandy Stepanovsky is currently in conversation with Dr. Race’s organization ‘Mindful Life’ about ways we can bring some of her work here to Friends’ School.

In a New York Times review of Mindful Parenting, Race defines mindful as “integrating that traditional concept of mindfulness with one that puts the emphasis on mind or rather, brain. In her version of “Mindful Parenting,” neuroscience and cognitive development share chapter space with meditative practices.”

At Friends’, in our pre-Kindergarten classes, we have already introduced the practice of mindfulness through yoga.

Each Monday afternoon, child development expert LJ Werner teaches yoga to our 4 year olds using a menu of different emotions to connect with each pose, breath, and present moment.

Werner specializes in helping students become aware of their feelings and emotions and find healthy tools to work through their emotions productively. The Preschool teachers first met LJ when they were trained in the Pyramid Plus Approach, a tool used to build successful classrooms and learning communities from the ground up. They enjoyed LJ’s philosophy and style of teaching so much that they asked if she would be willing to teach a weekly 30-minute yoga and mindfulness class at Friends’.

Yoga is a wonderful tool to help people become aware of their body, breathing, and emotions. Studies have found that using yoga helps children to enhance concentration, gives them tools for stress management, enhances body awareness, and maintains flexibility and strength in
growing bodies.  Yoga helps strengthen executive function skills as well. Two main areas of executive function that are supported through yoga are self-awareness and self-regulation. Children are learning to recognize and gain control over their attention and emotional responses.

Every week, LJ focuses on a different emotion and yoga poses or other strategies children can use to help them manage these emotions. Emotions covered have included: excited, happy, calm, mad, scared, shy, and sad.

Each class starts with a group discussion about a specific feeling. For example, “What makes us feel excited?” “Where do we feel it in our body?” “What happens to our body when we feel this way?” “What can we do?” Group conversations have been full of rich and relevant connections where children draw on their past experiences. For example, “When is a time that you have felt shy?” “When I see someone that I haven’t seen in along time.” “When I am making a new friend.” “When my older brother has a playdate.” “When I am trying a new game for the first time.”

LJ has taught the children that when they start to feel a certain emotion, they immediately have a choice. They can stop and choose how they will respond to their feelings rather than react through the teachings of yoga. This is an incredible concept for children to learn at a young age so they can start to build their toolbox for successful life long emotional learning.

A few of the poses that our preschoolers have learned are:
Mountain - standing tall and proud
Volcano - feeling of explosion
Polar bear - calming, going within, resting spot
Pretzel – heart opening, drains tension
Rag doll – loosing up and releasing tension
Owl - known for sight and hearing, promotes flexibility and awareness
Lemon Toes – squeeze and release, releasing tension
Shavasana – practicing complete stillness and allowing for integration

In response to the yoga classes, one preschool mom wrote to the teachers: LOVE THIS!  (My
son) has just thrived in class this year.  He talks about his yoga and is very proud!  THANK YOU!” Another parent reported that her family is being taught a new pose every Monday night at dinner!

According to the Yoga Journal, there are countless ways that yoga benefits young children. The most obvious benefit is that it releases stress and tension that we all inevitably encounter from our busy world that surrounds us. Yoga counters all these pressures for children by providing them with teachable techniques that support self-health, relaxation, and the ability to navigate life’s challenges with a little more ease.

Yoga has provided our classes (including the teachers!) with a positive experience of connecting with our feelings and the world around us. These experiences allow children to continue to practice identifying and managing their emotions. Children learn that they can use the practice of yoga to provide themselves with appropriate and safe choices to handle their emotions.

Yoga and mindfulness are yet another way that our program at Friends’ supports the whole child and gives them tools for success in life.

Thank you to Preschool teachers Katelynn Regan and Caroline Long for their contributions to this article.

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