Updated: Nov 24, 2018
As yoga teachers stepping into the mainstream school environment we should see it as our role to be supporting the physical, social and emotional health and wellness of the young people and their teachers to promote learning-readiness and a positive school climate.
With such a holistic practice as yoga it is difficult to separate the physical, social and emotional elements and benefits of interventions in schools, but I’ll try. I believe that the development of physical literacy should be held up as being as important in a child’s education as literacy and numeracy. So what do I mean by physical literacy? The definition that UK Sport (2002) adopts of physical literacy is the development of agility, balance, coordination, and skill across a wide range of activities. Margaret Whitehead (2010) has been credited as being one of the leading education experts in physical literacy. Her most recent definition of physical literacy is: “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, understanding and knowledge to maintain physical activity at an individually appropriate level, throughout life.”Hence, individuals who are physically literate have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to lead healthy lifestyles for themselves. This definition of physical literacy confirms our embodiment as a fundamental aspect of our nature – and in addition reinforces the holistic nature of the human condition and that the development of physical literacy is something that can influence us throughout our lives.
Are we currently at risk of raising a generation of disembodied individuals? Children and young people spend so much of their time in virtual worlds through computers and mobile devices. I know, I have two teenagers who I am in constant battle with over electronic device use. Many adults seem to have lost the connection with their bodies and their bodies needs. They have lost the awareness of what may or may not be physically possible; good or not so good for them physically. Are we all in danger of becoming desensitised or lacking physical literacy? Not to mention the appalling posture that extended time using electronic devices seems to necessitate. Surely childhood is the time to learn our body’s abilities and it’s limitations; to refine the physical body we have been gifted, to strengthen and stabilise it, and to connect mentally and emotionally with that body. Our physical development and indeed the physical risks we take in our youths can prepare us for challenges we face in later life.
Our bodies have a proprioceptive sense that helps us become aware of where we are in relation to our surroundings. We rely on receptors in our muscles and joints that relay information back to the brain. At the other end of life older people fall through lack of proprioception, indeed falling is the leading cause of death by injury among people aged 65 and older. Balance poses are foundational in yoga practice. If we never develop and hone our skills of balance in our youthful state how are we to maintain a more basic ability to balance and avoid injury in later life? If we never fall over, how do we know how to stay standing? Gaining stability and balance in a physical sense in precarious standing postures, arm balances and inversions not only strengthens our bodies from the core to the fine intrinsic muscles between our fingers and toes, but gives us a sense of balance and stability mentally and emotionally. These activities can make a child feel that anything is possible. The delight at achieving something that at first they see as beyond them inspires confidence and builds resilience. What a wonderful gift to offer to the growing child.
From my experience and from the feedback I receive from the schools I visit, children engage with yoga and benefit greatly from their physical asana practice whether they are age four in a reception PE lesson or Sixth Formers in a wellbeing extra-curricular activity. One reception teacher commented: “Over the weeks we have been taught yoga I have been pleased with the children's willingness to have a go even if they are not sure if they can do the move and enjoyed seeing their faces when they have actually managed to do it. They are so proud of themselves and are keen to show us what they can do.” Janine Bishop, Reception Teacher, Lewes
Most research supports the positive effects of yoga for adults beginning their practice of yoga and the transformative benefits it can bring to an adults life in terms of both physical and mental health. There have been few studies to investigate the effects the use of yoga on mainstream children and young people as a regular component of their school day. According to the World Heath Organisation, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” So, we must look beyond the physical benefits of yoga for the school age population and also consider the mind in its intellectual and emotional capacity and also the social impact yoga may have.
About the mind. Yoga has the capacity to increase attainment and aspiration and to improve cognitive functioning. Yoga and mindfulness techniques employed in the classroom can help to create a peaceful, learning ready environment and improve an individual’s focus and concentration. The affects on levels of concentration can be felt during a more physically or asana based yoga session which includes elements of mindfulness and guided meditation techniques. A year 1 teacher recently commented “I have also noticed how some children in the classroom environment find it hard to concentrate, however in yoga they are able to focus and concentrate for quite a long period of time with ease!” The change immediately following yoga sessions is noted by a headmaster of a school I have used in my research: "In surveys we have conducted some teachers have noted increased levels of concentration immediately following the sessions. “
Matthew Montebello, Headmaster, Western Road Primary, Lewes
Childhood and adolescence pose more and more stressors in today’s society that can result in emotional, behavioural and cognitive disturbances. The waiting list to see the college counsellor at a sixth form where I teach is so long that many students never get to be seen. Surely a wellbeing yoga intervention targeted to those individuals is appropriate and also cost-effective for an institution to employ. Yoga can be empowering for young people and can offer strategies and real tools to cope with stressful situations or it can simply give them times to slow down, reflect and take stock in a world where they are constantly bombarded. It can be a time away from the demands of assessment. The year 6 teacher at a primary school I visit commented that she felt that her class benefitted most from “having time alone on their mats”. She described how at that age when the social aspects of school: who is friends with who, how they are often expected to work with others and just the business of the school environment, queueing for lunch, lining up in the playground etc. can get stressful for many of them. Yoga offers them time to themselves to have their own defined personal space in a big room and to listen and take account of their own needs. Daniel J. Siegel in his book Brainstorm, The Power and Pupose of the Teenage Brain refers to this as “time in”. I often use this phrase when working with children and adolescents in school. Yoga teaches children that it is ok to slow down; to be quiet ; to be still. In a hectic world that over-stimulates us with technology, advertising, entertainment and in school where children are often moving quickly from one task to another, watching power-point displays and being assessed and tested, a time to do less and to rest can prove hugely beneficial. During a Sportivate funded project with sixth form students in Brighton one student stated, “I feel like a new person now! I'm definitely still coming to yoga during my exams as it really helps me to de-stress.”
Whitehead (2010) describes a range of characteristics which establish physical literacy. That phrase again. She describes how our physicality affects our emotional and social worlds. In particular, what she lists as the fifth characteristic of physical literacy describes an established sense of self as embodied in the world that engenders self-esteem and self-confidence. Accordingly, the sixth characteristic states that this then leads to fluent self-expression and therefore to empathetic interaction with others. Yoga fits perfectly here as a tool or method to engage students in physical activity that by its nature when delivered effectively engenders positive self-esteem and self-confidence but can also promote the development of perceptive and emphatic interaction with others.
Yoga is a practice that incorporates an holistic approach to physical activity, through breath-work, (pranayama) postures and movement (asana) and guided meditation (chanda). Whatever their age, participants in our school yoga sessions begin with breathing exercises, followed by strength, stability and flexibility postures and conclude their practice with a period of guided rest and relaxation. There are opportunities to work alone and for interaction with others. The combination of these elements does indeed bring about a sense of embodiment promoting self-esteem and self-confidence. The nature of the shared experience of a yoga group session along with specifically designed partner yoga and group exercises means that the children and young people connect and interact in positive and caring ways. It was heartening to hear from a year 1 teacher that “One of our boys is very reluctant to take part in any activities in the classroom without being coerced, but in Yoga he just joins in without any hesitation and thoroughly enjoys taking part”. The same teacher went on to report, “When we worked in partners it was great to see different children working together and creating the different yoga poses and supporting each other.”
The impact on the teaching staff in an educational institution cannot be under-estimated. One secondary teacher reported that the students are “quieter and more focused in yoga than they are at any other point in the day and that she loves witnessing that.” This then in turn has an effect in terms of classroom management. A year 3 teacher who always joins in the session with her class, expressed that she looks forward to yoga and that the sessions “left her feeling relaxed and able to focus on the next tasks with more clarity and less feeling of rushing around”. I’ve even had the school care-taker joining several sessions in a primary school I visit regularly, as she sees that a shared experience with the children brings the school community together in “a lovely way” and that it “really helps her back!” I have also led staff wellbeing programmes at a number of schools and colleges that have been extremely well received. Teachers spend their working lives’ giving’ and the opportunity to receive, to have someone pay attention to their needs and time to restore is always warmly appreciated.
I have found that yoga is a good fit in the school system and works best when it is accessible to all as part of the school day rather than as an extra-curricular activity. Several schools and colleges have bought yoga mats and after trial sessions or specific projects have committed to continuing their programs. Parents have been supportive and have fund raised through their PTA to ensure that the provision of our visits continues long term. Feedback from research I regularly carry out has been hugely positive most importantly from the young people themselves, but also from parents, teachers and head teachers. “The vast majority of children have engaged wholeheartedly and it's been especially encouraging to see our very youngest children taking such delight in learning and practising the Asanas." Head Teacher, Western Road Primary, Lewes
Whitehead, Margaret (2010) Physical Literacy: Throughout the Lifecourse. Routledge
UK Sports (2002). Game Plan: a strategy for delivering Government’s sport and physical activity objectives. London: Cabinet Office.
Ragoonaden, Cherkowski & Berg (2012) New directions in daily physical activity: Integral Education, Yoga and Physical Literacy
Siegel, Daniel J (2014) Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the Teenage Brain.