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Yoga and Mindfulness: Breaking Down Walls

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We welcome guest blogger Colin Lieu who works in the youth yoga and mindfulness space in New York City as an instructor and consultant across seven public schools and programs.

For the first time in history, a black writer-director was been nominated for Oscar awards in the trifecta of best picture, best director and best screenplay; the bittersweet history making film Barry Jenkins' movie, MOONLIGHT. Attention educators: witness a young man of color's social emotional growth at a crisis. But we don't need to turn to Hollywood to get schooled on adolescent angst. This from my own classroom:

"I hate being the tallest kid", seven year-old Malakai* told me."Do you want to know what the other guys say about you?"asked middle-schooler Markeace*, tempting me with school gossip - himself, known for some bullying qualities. I often joke that I can represent a diverse range of minority statuses so I was curious which of my battle wounds Markeace wanted a closer look at and - by the expression on his face - identified with.

Both comments came as a surprise - and shouldn't. Teaching yoga and mindfulness isn't just about working on a strong core, opening hips and headstands (though Markeace is well on his way to achieving the latter); it's an opportunity to check in with yourself. "What do I need right now? Am I upset at the incident or my reaction to the incident?"In a race to blend in, students rarely see themselves amidst the camouflage.

In MOONLIGHT, audiences watch in awe as Chiron layers on armors of hypermasculinity - unable or unwilling to confront the vulnerability he's trying so desperately to protect. Gold chains replace an impoverished soul longing for love. Loud music clouds the quiet voice of curious consciousness. Brute strength disguises a weak sense of self just learning to come into its own.

For Malakai and Markeace, having a safe, structured and consistent space to practice mindfulness became a tool - used consciously or not, to reflect and become self aware. It's a time to hit the pause button. They're invited to be mindful and embodied. This is new because too often kids are encouraged, or forced, to be disembodied.

"I'm not cold".
"Yes you are. Put on your coat".
"I need to go to the bathroom".
"No you don't. You can hold it".
"Grow up... Get over it... Stop crying".
"Don't cry".

Studies on the science of breathing show breathing exercises can enhance parasympathetic (inhibit neural responses) tone, decrease sympathetic (excitatory) nervous activity, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, decrease the effects of stress, and improve physical and mental health. We don't just need this to check in with ourselves, we need this - to live.

Yoga and Mindfulness Provide Pathways

At a time where so much focus is placed on building walls - yoga and mindfulness provide pathways for students to realize they can break down walls of their own. Standing out of the limelight as the tallest, the strongest, the boisterous one - Malakai has been able to thrive in an environment he didn't know he could; celebrated for this calm, intuition and introspection. As Markeace begins to see through the cracks of his learned protective mask, he's finding the courage to ask about identity, culture and community.

I continue to teach students like Malakai and Markeace. They remind me that I may be one of few positive role models in the lives of young people who is male, from a refugee immigrant family, identifies as LGBTQ and practices yoga. Now, Markeace even comes to class early to help me roll out the mats! Sometimes I'm his soundingboard. Sometimes it's silent. It's a safe, check-in space, for him. 

I didn't reach these candid moments overnight and when I first started I wasn't sure I'd have these breakthroughs. The administrators, educators and students I work with have difficulty integrating mindfulness as a regular practice. I get it. Budget, school schedules, parent support and other factors all play a role.

The buzz around yoga and mindfulness is hitting a crescendo. You may have read about some schools switching detention for meditation and students improving their grades thanks to yoga. It works.

That may all sound dandy, but if you think Lululemon (a fancy yoga apparel label) is a weight loss detox and pranayama (a yoga breathing technique) is a type of Japanese noodle - I don't blame you! So where can educators begin?  I invite you to begin with the exercises described below.  

Yoga and Mindfulness Beginning Exercises

Here is a  guide that can help to begin. Hand sanitizer and lotion is a nice novelty for some of the younger sensory-seeking students while the older ones benefit the structured downtime.

I recommend testing out these classroom instructions with staff first. Brainstorm how this works best for your teachers, students and classrooms. I've even led this exercise as workshop in a PTA meeting to get support and ideas from parents.  

1. Tone of silence
Set the right tone so students understand certain lighting or sounds symbolize a shift in gears. If your room has enough natural light, consider turning off a set of lights or all the lights. Ring a chime or bell (Amazon has some great options). Play relaxing non-lyrical music (I like to follow yoga instructors on Spotify and use their playlists).

2. A handy tip
Pass around hand sanitizer and offer students the option of also using hypoallergenic lotion afterwards. Ask   students to rub the lotion onto both sides of their hands and around their fingers. Use the right thumb to apply pressure onto an open left palm - running the thumb from the wrist down to the knuckles. Also rub the thumb side to side. Apply pressure with the thumb, drawing circles on the palm both ways. Grab hold of each of the left fingers with the right hand and after a light squeeze, gently pull the right hand away. Do this for each finger.

Repeat on the opposite side - the left thumb massaging the right hand. Finally, interlace fingers and circle out the wrists.

3. Neck stop: relax
Drop the right ear towards the right shoulder and feel a stretch along the left side of the neck. Use the right hand to pull the head down more, if needed. Continue stretching the side neck, but turn the head downwards - eyes and nose directed towards the shoulder. This time, feeling the stretch along the back of the neck.

Use the right hand to squeeze the muscles along the left shoulder and neck, giving it a massage. Make a fist with the right hand and pat down the shoulder. Open the right palm into a 'karate chop' and pat down the neck and shoulder. Repeat on the other side.

Drop the chin to the chest and take eight slow seconds to make a circle with the head one way - and then the other.

4. Shoulder on
Bring hands onto (the same side) shoulders, and make circles with elbows coming forward - and then backwards.

Interlace fingers and turn palms to face outwards. Inhale and reach the arms up, palms face the ceiling. Exhale and lean slightly to the right. Inhale came back up to center. Exhale lean slightly to wards the left.

5. Spine arts
Bring hands onto knees. Inhale lift the chest up, gaze up and arch the spine. Exhale and curl the spine forward, drop chin to chest. Repeat three times.

Close out the practice by asking students to bring one hand to their chest and one hand to their stomach. As a community, share a final inhale and exhale together.

 Photograph rights exclusively belong to Colin Lieu

*Malakai and Markeace are pseudonyms 

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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