Yoga in Education
By Christine Ristuccia, M.S. CCC-SLP, RYT and James Ristuccia RYT
What does Revolved Triangle, Downward Facing Dog and other pretzel-twisting moves have to do with education?
Actually a lot.
Yoga, a centuries-old practice that has progressively received more and more attention for the positive health benefits for adults is starting to generate more awareness for the positive impact on children. Bringing yogic techniques into school and into the learning environment can have immediate and lasting impact on students by lessening anxiety, improving fine and gross motor skills, improving physical fitness, reinforcing natural kinetic learning, bring clarity to make better decisions and increasing language reception and retention.
Our students have stress and anxiety. Children are not immune to the stresses of modern society. The pace of society, with over-scheduling, high technology gadgets, and ultra-competitiveness in school has done nothing but significantly increase the demands on children over the last few decades. Demands equate to stress and elevated anxiety which impacts learning and wears on physical and mental health pushing the body out of homeostasis. Anxiety affects the limbic system (emotions) which releases adrenaline which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system. When under physical or emotional stress the sympathetic nervous system releases cortisol which, under high levels, can cause brain cells to die and reduces the connections between cells in certain parts of the brain. Constant stressors do not allow the body to rest adequately. By remaining under constant low-level stress, retention and learning is affected since the hippocampus, the part of the brain the stores short-term memory, is not afforded the necessary downtime needed to reformat information into long-term memory.
That yoga can help reduce these stresses and act as a balm to these issues facing our students is generally understood. However, before delving into even greater benefits, let’s first let’s deconstruct the stereotype of yoga. When yoga is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is lithe bodies in cute outfits, crazy twisting moves and new age music in a class with no furniture. While that is all well and good, and useful. In a school for the most part, that couldn’t be farther from practicality. That is not the vision we are advocating. What we are suggesting however, is that you and your students can receive great benefit by implementing Yogic techniques: posture awareness, purposeful breathing, grounding and focus.
Yogic techniques can be done by anyone, anywhere and in a short a time as one minute: Stand tall, on both feet. Raise the arms high overhead so that the fingers are pointing to the sky. Inhale deeply through the nose. Powerfully exhale through the mouth and lower the arms. Repeat for one minute. This is called ocean breath because the breathing sounds like the sound of the ocean. Try this simple, yet powerful, technique with your students before a therapy session or class and note the changes.
Just using this experiential trial as an example demonstrates not only the benefit of stress reduction, but also the inherent value of implicit learning, which is learning through the body and by doing. It is much more powerful then explicit learning which is learning through text, facts and basic recall. Children are naturally kinetic learners. They learn by touching, feeling and tactile sensation. Young children need to physically experience concepts in order to truly grasp them. Yoga, through the various postures or poses, requires a great deal of spatial cognition and uses the body to learn these concepts in a natural manner: right from left, up from down, and inside and out. Using yogic postures, such as Table Top or Down Dog, to act out stories incorporates active versus passive learning where all children can be involved in the activity and integrates visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles.
Often children with speech language impairments (SLI) have fine and gross motor delays. Motor skills are controlled in the brain by a small portion of the brain close to the brain stem, called the cerebellum which is commonly linked to movement and critical to our attention system. The cerebellum coordinates both sensory movement and processes language cognition. This intersection is where movement (yoga) harmonizes with language acquisition and retention. Research suggests that there appears to be a link between physical domain and speech-language skills. Thus if you improve motor skills then a concomitant improvement in speech and language may occur.
Additionally, gross motor delays, motor incoordination disorders, as well as auditory processing disorders are linked to sensory integration. Balance and sensory input is measure and monitored in the vestibular system located in the inner ear. The vestibular system is involved in sensory integration (SI), the ability to organize, integrate and use sensory information from the body and the environment. It helps the body to maintain balance, turn thinking into action, coordinate movement, and detect motion and gravity. The vestibular system is a major organizer of sensation, so it contributes to the acquisition of word understanding and speech. Since it is anatomically joined with the cochlear system it has close neurological associations with the pathways for auditory processing and language. The vestibular system also affects the nervous system. This explains why individuals may have problems breathing, or may develop nausea, or irregular heart rates when the system is overwhelmed. Notably, the system that coordinates global proprioception intersects significant speech and language receptors (functions?) and is also appreciably affected by stress. Incorporating movement, such as yoga, into developmental and therapeutic activities flexes and strengthens proprioceptive awareness, facilitates sensory processing, improves arousal and attention to task, and enhances language organization which increases speech production and understanding of language.
Yoga is an inclusive activity for all, but especially caters to students that are socially- challenged. As a non-competitive activity, yoga is especially motivating for children who are shy, lack in social skills and perhaps frustrated with competitive sports because their motor skills are not on par with peers. With yoga achievement is individualized, without public displays of skill (i.e. hitting a baseball), thus leading to more confidence and social acceptance. Increasing motivation and confidence is both a valuable teaching tool and an intangible factor that permeates all aspects of learning.
Yoga teaches students the tools to “turn off” our hyper-connected, hyper-active world and fortify themselves from the constant bombardment of an over-scheduled, over-tested, and media-manic lifestyle. Yogic techniques, specifically purposeful breathing aligned with physical movement, are simple and easy to implement in an educational setting as a facilitator to better achieve educational goals. Bringing yoga into school does not have to entail a complete hour-long adult type class. Nor should it be one more thing to add to our ever expanding to-do list of never to get done items. Rather it is a tool to be used during transitions, breaks or as active-learning facilitators to enrich and enhance the overall learning experience. Yoga is inexpensive and easy to learn. As educators, we need to be attuned to new ideas and methods that can benefit our children.