As part of Denver-based Axis Yoga teacher training program, students are asked to implement the what they are learning into their daily lives. Ashley, a recent graduate of the program, works at a public school in Denver helping third graders improve their reading. She is confronted with the fact that many of the students she works with are emerging readers “behind schedule” as defined by the public school system. Ashely explores the question of how yoga can be used to support literacy and reading in the Denver Public School system.
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I consulted whatever text I could find on yoga for children: during the project’s short time frame, I read books as I received them, and two in particular impacted my procedure. I was also able attend a Yoga For Young Warriors class at the Eliot Street Collective.
I began on a Thursday: I tried to organize a short sequence that would present the principals of diaphragmatic breathing, give students the opportunity to wiggle, and then to find focus by balancing in vrksasana. The first day, I felt rather deflated, as it seemed that most of the class chose not to participate in the yogic breath lesson, and then bounced around on one foot during tree pose. I felt frustrated and let my disappointment show in my body. The second day, Friday, I remembered that my posture communicates my expectations. I kept my emotional reaction to the chaos of bouncing children in check, and I made an effort to praise student’s efforts to participate.
Over the weekend I began to read Yoga Calm for Children: Educating Heart, Mind, and Body by Lynea and Jim Gillen. The book helped me to remember that children are not little adults, and a sense of play is important (how could I forget!). The Gillen’s section to “Use Language to Align from the Inside Out” helped me to develop the way I understand teaching yoga to adults or children. The Gillens suggest, “alignment will be easier and more desirable for students when you use simple, evocative, descriptive language that conveys an attitude of alignment (e.g., “Stand tall and proud.”) or quality of being (e.g., “Imagine you are a king or queen with a crown on your head.”) (57). This reminder that creativity is part of teaching alleviated the stress I experience when I think about teaching. I used the image of wearing a crown with the third graders with pleasing results: their chests and chins lifted and smiles adorned their faces.
The following Monday, I attended the Yoga For Young Warriors class. I wanted to see an experienced teacher’s discipline methodology in action. The class had only one student in attendance, so I didn’t get the sort of demonstration I had hoped for. Nonetheless, the instructor presented the class as best she could as if to a room full of children. She reviewed rules (always listen to your body, always do yoga around parents or adults, have fun), a concept I hadn’t even considered introducing in the third grade classroom. The class was imaginative and mixed mat work with various movements around the room: big stepping, tiptoeing, hopping, a kind of “ministry of funny walks” – all muscles actions that are useful for moving in yoga asana. As a whole, the YFYW class reinforced the principal of play and emphasized imagination as a tool for teaching yoga to children – and for teaching, generally.
During the next week, I worked to return to my original intention: to pair the time in tree pose with a visualization/lesson on trees to encourage students to think beyond themselves. I realized that the third graders were reading about the life cycle of a plant in social studies. I quickly adapted our short time in yoga to reflect their reading. For the rest of the week, I worked to incorporate information about trees that would appeal to the third grader’s experience. For example, I talked about why some trees loose their leaves and others, evergreens, don’t. To incorporate eye movement into tree pose, I asked students to find a gaze point, and to shift as I signaled if they felt comfortable. To stimulate the eyes’ focusing ability, I asked them to shift focus from an object nearby to something farther away.
Because students were eager to explore more poses, I incorporated, garudasana, eagle pose. I chose garudasana because of its similarity to Brain Gym’s “Hook-ups” and “Cross Crawl” exercises. In Smart Moves, Hannaford states that “Cross Crawl” stimulates the hippocampus and improves learning and memory (132). The crossing of limbs in “Hook-ups” “consciously activates the sensory and motor cortices of each hemisphere of the cerebrum, especially the large area devoted to the hands” (133). Additionally, the movement stimulates “the entire motor coordination system and the vestibular system . . . bringing the system into coherence, ands assisting focus, learning and memory” (134). Graudasana thus has the potential to challenge the third graders’ thirst for a challenge and stimulate brain
Yoga Calm for Children offers several lesson plans for varying age groups. I noticed something fundamental that I’d been neglecting to incorporate into my time with the third grade: svasana! I began to give students time to integrate their short yoga experiences following the format suggested by the Gillens in Yoga Calm: I asked students to do a “one-minute exploration” with their heads down at their desks. Some days I gave students a format, “think about a time you felt strong,” other days I left the “exploration” open-ended. I offered two students the opportunity to share afterwards. It seemed that this svasana-like time in particular impacted the students’ behavior during the remaining hour of school.
At first, I felt suspicious of books on yoga for children. I initially felt that incorporating too many elements, like music, acting, costume, puppetry, shouldn’t dilute yoga. However, as I reviewed why I thought yoga for children might be important – to provide them with tools to know and interact with their own bodies – I realized that yoga for children really is a different beast. Because children’s brains and bodies are developing at a fast pace, yoga can be a tool to get to know their bodies through the changes.
The impact of yoga-like movements’ stimulation on the brain is something I can only begin to grasp. Most yoga programs designed for children provide anecdotal data on yoga’s impact on the brain. I have relied heavily on one source, Smart Moves, by Carla Hannaford to build my understanding of how this happens within the brain. At the very least, yoga offered the third grader’s brains an opportunity to stimulate three-dimensional focus before entering into an activity that demands two-dimensional focus, thus offering an emotional and physical break from the rigor of the classroom. For the third graders I work with, yoga has been an opportunity for them to know me better, and I them.
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