Several years ago, as students rolled up their yoga mats and filed out the door at the end of the school day, a senior boy slowed as he passed by.
“Thank you for making me not hate Ben,” he said. And then he speeded up and continued on his way.
As the loudspeaker announcements competed with the growing buzz of students in the hallway, I rolled up my mat, stepped into the cacophony and wondered about David’s (not his real name) words. I knew what had happened for him had little to do with me, but it was clearly a significant moment for him.
David’s emotional intelligence had shifted. And most importantly, he had recognized that shift.
As I listened to Dr. Ruha Benjamin’s 2017 Rowland Conference keynote advocating that empathy – a feeling – undergird 21st century curriculum design as a method for achieving equity in our schools, that moment with David came to mind.
Because of scientific findings about the intelligence of the human heart, we now know that our hearts contain 40,000 neurons that can feel, perceive, and remember. The emotional signals communicated from heart to brain determine the hormones and chemicals the brain will release. Overwhelm and angst will trigger a release of cortisol, the stress hormone, while feelings of calm boost dopamine and serotonin in the brain, the “happy” chemicals that allow us to feel relaxed and content. David no longer hated Ben. Through neural circuitry, he experienced and then processed a change in his feelings, which allowed him to articulate what he felt to me.
Certainly David’s change of heart was the result of many learning experiences, inside and outside of school, but it appeared that the quiet of his daily yoga class gave him the time and space to stop and pull it all together.
Recent scientific findings have demonstrated that when the heart beats in an even, stable rhythm – in other words, when the body feels calm – that there are many benefits to the brain, among them increased mental acuity, wiser decision making, and expanded intuition.
And, a strong body of medical and scientific research has proven that the regular practice of yoga poses and mindfulness techniques soothes the nervous system and lowers the blood pressure, thus countering feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and stress, that compounded, lead to negativity, often directed at the self and then at others.
Over a period of months, David had practiced yoga daily in school along with fifteen other students. Through challenging his body in the yoga poses, controlling his breathing, and quieting his mind, he had become attuned to his own thoughts and feelings. By coming to his yoga mat, by stopping and learning to read his body and mind, David had the opportunity to meet the heart intelligence he naturally possessed. Seeing goodness in himself allowed David to see it in another person, someone he had claimed to hate.
Many sound arguments exist for including yoga and mindfulness practices in public schools. However, Dr. Benjamin’s theory that cultivating empathy because it will lead to equity is, to me, the most convincing of them all. The idea that the heart and mind are in dialogue has been foundational in yoga teachings for thousands of years. That western science now corroborates this ancient understanding makes clear the truth of our collective wisdom about the body.
In this context, the yogic concept of Pratyahara, which means withdrawal of the senses, is an effective tool for developing self-knowledge. In the practice of Pratyahara, we step back and away from external stimuli by stopping to consciously deepen the breath, close the eyes, and scan the inner landscape of the body. From a practical standpoint in the physical practice of yoga, drawing the attention and focus inward is necessary for executing the yoga poses safely. And, as important, practicing Pratyahara even without the yoga poses – while sitting at a desk, for example – has practical implications for cultivating the self-knowledge that can lead to empathy.
The practice of Pratyahara affords us the opportunity to stop and see how we are feeling. With this practice, we can discover what may be disturbing us. Is it a discordant relationship? A longstanding worry? An insult on social media? Not enough time for ourselves? Answering those questions leads to self-knowledge, and then we can problem solve. We can restore our full, natural capacity for empathy, and feel better ourselves, as we trim away what blocks our openness toward and tolerance for others.
To that end, if public school professionals create time and space in the day for quiet and contemplation – even a few minutes a day or ideally a few minutes several times a day – we will make an important step toward growing the empathy that Dr. Benjamin argues is key to achieving equity. Including a credit-bearing yoga and mindfulness class in our daily offerings provides another way to work toward this goal.
There are successful techniques that both teachers and students can use together to promote optimal heart-brain communication.
Here is a short list:
Stop before starting something new.
Close the eyes.
Scan the body.
Stand or sit still. Feel the ground beneath your feet.
Draw weight to your feet.
Take a short walk outside.
Perform sun salutations or a few yoga poses.
I know from my own teaching experience how difficult it is to stop in the midst of the flow of the school day. But when I do this for my students, and myself, we are all better for it – more focused, sensitive, and aware of ourselves as part of a group.
We need to remember that compassion is our natural state of being, and achieving the goal of equity, whether through personal interactions, curriculum design, or legislation, will come first through knowing the compassion in our own hearts. That knowledge will raise all of us up.
Anne Bergeron, M.A., I.M.A., E-RYT
Anne Bergeron began teaching credit-bearing yoga classes to high school students in 2001 at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, and then had the good fortune to have a yoga “laboratory” at the Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River where she taught high school English and yoga for fourteen years. During that time, she developed curricula for credit bearing, multiple pathway, inquiry-based yoga classes taught through the lens of Eastern cultures to hundreds of Vermont high school students. Anne received a Rowland Foundation grant in 2011 to promote cultural diversity and wellness throughout the Blue Mountain Union curriculum. She has shared her love of yoga with people of all ages, including Dalit children in India and teens in Indonesia. Anne is currently the interim Writing Center Director at The Sharon Academy and a student of Ayurvedic Medicine.