The beginning of the school year can be stressful for students and teachers alike. What better time to introduce a calming break within the school day? By structuring a quiet minute at the start of class, after lunch, or when transitioning between activities, we offer students and faculty a chance to catch their breath, literally. By offering our students the gift of quiet, even for a moment or two, we can transform our classrooms into a zone of peace. I hope this post, composed of excerpts from my book, Classroom Yoga Breaks (2016), will inspire you to create some moments of stillness in your days at school.
If you spend any time in schools, you know how noisy they can be. Hallways are filled with students jostling, hollering, and shrieking. The cafeteria is a roar of continual chatter and shouts; bells squeal; loudpseakers bellow—noise, noise, noise. Silence is enforced during tests and lectures, but there are rarely quiet times during the school day that are not fraught with stress. Outside school, kids are bombarded with loud volumes from TV, computer games, and music.
Research has demonstrated that children exposed to chronic noise during their school day experience higher levels of cortisol and increased stress response, and may function more poorly in school than children in quieter settings (Seidman & Standring, 2010). In fact, “noise significantly elevates stress among children at . . . levels far below those necessary to produce hearing dam- age” (Evans et al., 1998, p. 75). According to a World Health Organization report, chronic exposure to low-level noise may result in the impairment of cognitive tasks such as “reading, long term memory, attention and motivation” (2009, p. 40).
Quiet has a soothing effect on most mammals, yet it’s a “sound” that is unfamiliar to many youth. What happens to children when they are reintroduced to the sound of quiet?
Importance of Quiet
Stillness gives students an opportunity to reset their inner rhythm. Refocusing attention from outside to inside is the fifth rung of yoga, according to Patanjali. There are many ways to help students turn their attention inward.
In Chime Listening, the teacher strikes a chime one time, instructing students to listen quietly to the sound for as long as possible, then raise their hands when the sound becomes imperceptible (Flynn, 2011). Mindful listening is an excellent tool for quieting a group or to begin a class activity. I often use a singing bowl or vibratone to encourage quiet listening. For more lessons on tuning in, see Part V, Unit 5.
Donna Davis asks her Edgewater High School PE students to stash their cell phones in her drawer, so they can disconnect from the outside world for 45 minutes each day. Although not required, she highly encourages this commitment to participate fully in class. Yoga, she explains to her students, is about being present and in the moment. Davis sees “many kids addicted to their phones. It’s really hard to give it up. When they do it, even for a short time, it’s a big thing” (personal communication, April 10, 2015). Yoga and mindfulness teacher Kelli Love explains that classroom yoga helps students “transfer the emotional regulation strategies that are reinforced daily in the yoga room to everyday school and home environments.” The students in her school have a “reflection area in each classroom where they can go to do their own quiet practice if they need a break in their day” (personal communication, December 17, 2014).
Create a Peaceful Mood
Leading your class through a short yoga break at the beginning or end of a lesson is an excellent way to reset the mood. Here’s how you might begin.
Dim the lights, put aside your work for a moment, and play soothing music.
If you don’t have time to make those adjustments, you can rely on your own voice and breathing to change the tenor of the classroom. These are tools that you have with you at all times. Remember, you are the mirror for your students: They perceive your level of stress or calm. No matter how many times you may tell them to relax or be still, it won’t mean much if you are agitated when you say those words.
Breathing in a slow, relaxed manner shifts your body into rest and restore mode. Brown and Gerbarg (2012) recommend “coherent breathing” at approximately six breaths per minute. As your breathing calms, you create an atmosphere of tranquility within your classroom. Using a gentle tone of voice sends a message to your students that you feel safe, that they are safe.
Consciously relax your facial muscles and jaw. Keeping your voice soft, direct your students to take three Huh Breaths (inhaling, shrug the shoulders up to the ears; exhale and drop). Continue with Bellows Breath (see Unit 2): Instruct your students to interlace their fingers and place their hands behind their heads, elbows open. Inhaling, look up; exhaling, look down.
Repeat twice more. Drop the hands and take three more Huh Breaths before returning to normal breathing.
By participating with your students in this 1-minute yoga break, you not only guide them, but you give yourself a moment to relax. In this way you reflect for your students a world that is kind, caring, and calm.
One New Jersey K–8 school uses a 2-minute lesson delivered over the public address system. According to Newark Yoga Movement founder Debby Kaminsky, “Since starting the program two years ago, the principal says that this Monday routine has changed the culture of the school. After a weekend of who knows what, it brings kids back into a place of calm and learning readiness” (personal communication, March 3, 2014).
As difficult as it may be for students to change their thinking or their behavior, it’s relatively easy to change how they breathe. Just focusing on the breath creates a calming effect. As the breathing rate slows, the heart rate follows.
Louise Goldberg is a yoga therapist (C-IAYT) and educator. She has taught English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. Louise leads trainings internationally on Creative Relaxation, mindful yoga for educators. She is the author of Classroom Yoga Breaks, Yoga Therapy for Children with Autism and Special Needs and co-author of S.T.O.P. and Relax, Your Special Needs Toolbox. Learn more at her website, https://www.creativerelaxation.net/.