After discussing what it meant to be mindful, today we embarked on a very mindful practice: breathing. I love this lesson because students are able to connect what is happening in their brain when they breathe deeply and understand how it can help in becoming more mindful.
Focusing on our breathing can help calm our bodies by slowing our heart rate, lowering blood pressure and sharpening focus. It gives our amygdala time to slow down its ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response and communicate with our prefrontal cortex. We are then able to think clearly and make more mindful choices.
Why do we need to practice mindful breathing everyday?
When we practice something everyday our brains become stronger by creating and strengthening neural pathways and connections. This is the idea of neuroplasticity.
When we practice deep breathing as a response to stress, we develop these practices as healthy habits. Our amygdala can calm down and we can be more reflective in our thoughts and actions.
This seems like quite a sophisticated process to explain to children, but with a brief visual using our hands and arms as neurons they are figuring it out.
Sitting in a circle, I asked the kids to stretch out their arms. Their fingers are the dendrites, their hand the nucleus, their forearm the axon and out from their elbow are the nerve endings. With our fingers moving, we talk about how information moves from the dendrites through the axon and then can connect to other dendrites. I had the students hook their ‘dendrites’ (fingers) to their neighbour’s ‘nerve endings’ (elbows) to show how pathways in our brain can grow and strengthen. Students were very excited to learn that they in fact could strengthen their brains!
So how do we breath? Funny, it’s something we do all day, everyday, but we often don’t give much thought to how we are doing it or the quality of our breaths.
I remember the first time I learnt about belly breathing in a yoga class I was shocked to find out my whole life I had been breathing backwards. When I would breathe in, I would literally suck my belly in, not allowing much air in. When I breathed out, I would push my belly out.
When you think about breathing in as bringing fresh oxygen IN to your body, it makes sense that your belly would rise up as you fill it with air. When you breathe out, your belly then drops as your squeeze all the air out of your belly and lungs.
The best way to do this with kids is have them put their hands on their bellies so they can feel their bellies rise and fall. With younger kids it is also fun for them to do it lying down with an object placed on their belly so they can watch it go up and down as they breathe.
Once we had some giggles and figured out how to breathe in and out we decided to put it into practice. I told the students to find a place in the room they felt comfortable. I would ring a bell to start our mindful breathing and then I would ring it again to signal that we were done. The chime helps to bring our attention to our breathing. It’s nice to have a bell or chime with a resonate sound so that is lingers for a while so that the students can keep focusing on the sound.
We talked about if we were indeed ‘mindfully’ breathing, what should we look like?
-Focusing only on our breathing
-Our bodies are still
-our eyes are closed or focused on one thing
-Our backs are straight, shoulders relaxed, and feet flat on the floor
These were all ‘check ins’ to help us be able to really focus on only our breathing.
The MindUP book gives a nice script to follow to guide your students through the breathing practice:
The first group I did this with was a grade 6/7 class. We got through the lesson and then I asked them to find a place in the room where they could be comfortable so we could practice our mindful breathing. I waited until everyone shuffled about, some choosing to sit against the wall, others laid out on the floor and some in their chairs. We took a moment just to relax and get comfortable before I rang the bell.
And then in was silent. I looked around and everyone was breathing.
When I rang the bell for the second time I asked the students to come back to the circle we were gathered in on the floor. I wanted to ask what they thought about it.
“Can we do it again?” was the first comment. I smiled and said of course.
“It was nice to have a minute where I felt like I didn’t have to worry about anything.”
“I finally felt relaxed.”
It was very powerful to hear grade 6/7 students speak like this after 1 minute of deep breathing. Imagine if we practiced everyday!
We talked about times in our day when a minute of deep breathing could be helpful. Here’s what they came up with:
Beginning of the day
Before a test
On the bus
I asked the students to see if they could use their deep breathing at least once more that day when they feel like they need to take a minute to reflect and calm down. I hope we are on our way to developing a healthy habit 🙂