Integrating yoga class structure and style in the middle school classroom
I nervously entered the room and found a seat in the back. I looked around to find the fastest exit, but I was too late; the teacher walked in, queued the music, and dimmed the lights. “Welcome” she began. “It is a beautiful day and I am so pleased to see my strong and wonderful friends join me in my practice today.” I looked outside at the drizzling rain and grey sky wondering what beautiful day she was referring to. “We will begin our practice today in any type of seated position that feels right to you. Let’s take a few moments to just sit and breathe quietly.”
I have been regularly practicing yoga for about a year now. At the end of a vigorous yet relaxing yoga practice the other day, in the midst of our Savasana, the laying-down-on-your-back pose, the pose in which I should have been clearing my thoughts and focusing on my breath, my mind wandered to work, and I wondered: What would our middle school classrooms be like if teachers incorporated yoga structure, language, and philosophy into their practice?
We know that young adolescents are at a sensitive and fragile time in their development. If we want our middle school students to reach their full potential and thrive in high school and into adulthood, we need to be ready to meet their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive needs. The Association for Middle Level Education’s (NMSA, 2010) This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents maintains that a successful middle school should be developmentally responsive, challenging, empowering, and equitable. As a practicing yogi, a middle school teacher educator, and a former middle school teacher, I see the potential in integrating yoga philosophy into the middle school classroom. To be clear, I am not talking about having students practice yoga in the classroom, but rather about teachers using some basic yoga-inspired approaches with students as outlined below.
Warm and Positive Greetings
When I walk into a yoga studio, I feel welcomed. If I have never met the instructor, she greets me with a handshake or a hug, eye contact, and asks my name. When I become a regular in the class, she remembers me and greets me warmly. At the end of the class the instructor always makes a point of saying goodbye and thank you to each student as they leave the studio. This personal connection is important. After all, we are spending 75-90 minutes together in a small space.
The middle school teacher can do the same. This is an easy give. Imagine the power of greeting your students at the beginning of a lesson with “good morning my kind and intelligent students. I am so happy that you have come to class today to join me and your fellow students in this lesson. I am here to serve you, and together we can make this a great day!” At the end of the lesson, thank the students for coming to class. Look each student in the eye as they leave. As a former middle school teacher, I understand the tendency toward a rushed classroom exit. Often, we feel the need to dismiss the students quickly and move to to the next class, lunch, or hall duty. Take the time to calmly and warmly say goodbye. Imagine how that personal contact will carry each student to the next class and through the rest of the day.
Setting an Intention
Yoga classes often begin with the setting of an intention. What brings you to your mat today? Why are you here and what do you hope to achieve or to be? On particularly stressful days, my intention may be to achieve calmness. If I am facing conflict in my personal life, it may be to offer and receive kindness. If I am striving to master a yoga pose, my intention may be patience as I practice the pose. Intentions are not shared aloud. This allows a quiet and private space to reflect on one’s self and reason for being in the space.
After your warm and positive greeting, ask your middle school students to consider an intention. Ask “Why are you here and what do you hope to achieve today in class?” We know that some middle school students might answer with “I am here because I have to be, and I just want to sleep” or something to that effect. Thus, depending on the students, you can rephrase and narrow the question to a particular assignment. For example, ask “In what way do you want to improve your essay today?” Or, “What one thing do you want to practice today that will help you on your test this week?” The students can practice setting class intentions silently, with partners, and eventually aloud to the class. The teacher can also model by verbally sharing a teacher intention.
Accepting Differences and Providing Accommodations
“If it feels right or if your practice allows it” are words that one yoga instructor uses often. Another has said, “We are all on our separate journeys together.” These statements are affirmations that we are all different and have different abilities. Although we may be trying to achieve the same result, we have different paths to getting there. I may be working on mountain pose, a simple standing position while my neighbor works on a head stand. There are times, when my instructor notices in my face or body language that I am struggling with a pose. She will gently walk to me and hand me a prop like a block to elevate me and assist me with a pose.
In the same gentle way, teachers can assist students when they run into academic obstacles by looking for those frustration expressions on students’ faces, wandering intentionally through the classroom to be available to help, offering quick words of encouragement as needed, and empowering students to vary assignment expectations according to their intentions and needs. Students will sense the teacher is open and approachable and will be more apt to share their needs for help on their way to fulfilling their opening intentions.
The final few minutes in every yoga class is spent in a pose called Savasana. The purpose of this final pose is to reflect on your practice and to reap the benefits of the work you just did in class. The pose is known as the corpse pose because yogis lay flat on their backs, breathe deeply and naturally, and allow their minds to review the benefits, beauty, strength, and acquired skills of the yoga practice of the last 45-60 minutes. What was my intention? What small steps did I take toward it? What was challenging today? What made me feel good during the practice?
What if middle school teachers took a few minutes at the end of every class to allow students to quietly reflect on their achievements, efforts, and new skills? What might be the benefits to allowing the middle school student five minutes of quiet, stillness, and reflection at the end of a class session? Most likely, over time, students would get into the habit of self-evaluating their progress each class, each day, each week. It may seem peculiar at first, but mindfulness and awareness of one’s progress would seem natural and beneficial to students if they ended class with an academic Savasana. They would also enter the hallway to their next classes with calm and peace, instead of hurry and anxiety.
In yoga classes, following Savasana, students are slowly brought back to focus with the teacher asking students to come back to a seated position on the floor. “Thank you, my wonderful friends, for coming today and for meeting me here to practice. The light in me honors the light in you. Namaste.” At the end of class, the teacher may wish to thank the students for coming, remind them of how much they enjoy their company on the academic journey, and tell them they are proud of the progress each student has made today. The students can then leave class knowing that the adult in charge of them, their teacher, enjoys them and awaits their return another day.
Yoga sensibilities and approaches might have much to offer our middle school students. These five approaches—warm individual greetings, intention-setting by the students, recognition of individual differences, quiet reflection on progress made, and encouragement toward the next step of the school day journey—might just be the antidote for the hurried, anxious atmosphere some students carry on the inside to class. Why not give them a try?
Namaste! Have a wonderful day!
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.