Classroom yoga helps students to focus for better academics, life skillsFeb 23, 2022 06:37PM ● By Julie Slama
Twenty-four South Jordan Elementary fourth-graders practice yoga as a way to rechannel their focus and energy into their schoolwork. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
“Mindful magnificent me.”
Twenty-four South Jordan Elementary fourth-graders say those words as they pause to focus on their breathing — inhaling and exhaling. They think about their lungs as they breathe, their hearts beating, all while calming their bodies and minds.
They were quiet, listening to their teacher’s words: “Life gets hard, homework gets hard, but we can do hard things. Take the challenge; you are strong. You’re in control of your body, your mind. Mindful magnificent me.”
Classroom yoga. It’s an activity that has been incorporated into Karrie Wardell’s weekly curriculum for 14 years.
“Yoga is helping strengthen their minds so they can do even better academics; they can concentrate more, they can focus more, their brains are alert,” she said. “They’re learning to problem-solve and to pay attention to what’s going on and who is being left out and needs a friend. Their bodies are learning stamina and resilience. Yoga energizes them. It helps them have a lot of healthy quality traits and leads to becoming all-around quality, balanced people. It’s mindfulness and it really helps in all aspects.”
Fourth-grader Taygen Huntsman was alongside her classmates practicing yoga poses; she said it helps her to relax.
“After I do yoga, I’m able to get the stress of school or what someone might have said on the playground out of my mind so I’m able to focus on my work,” she said. “It’s fun to do at school with other people and learn new poses.”
Wardell began yoga herself after raising her children and returning to school.
“I was so stressed out with going back to school, having three kids, being a grandma. It was one of my class assignments to learn to manage stress and anxiety; they shared how yoga and breathing really helps calm your nervous system to be able to focus, so I thought that’s what I needed,” she said.
Wardell found it helped so much she has continued doing yoga.
“Then, I started teaching a couple poses here and there to the kids and it kind of helped settle them down. I started seeing a pattern with kids who had trouble sitting still and focusing, it gave them a little break to kind of breathe. Then, I saw how afterward they could concentrate, and I realized this really helps kids so much,” she said.
Fourth-grader Nora Mears says it has helped her.
“It’s peaceful and afterward, I’m not worried or upset about anything so I can understand what we’re learning in class better,” she said.
Classmate Daci Bott agrees. “When I’ve had a bad day, and we take a break to do yoga, I’m able to calm down and be able to keep learning.”
For 10 years, Wardell taught and included yoga breaks, then two-and-a-half years ago, she decided to use the study of incorporating yoga into classrooms for her master’s degree.
“I read hundreds of articles and peer reviews, and everything pointed to it helping the kids’ academically and with life skills,” she said.
After confirming what she had witnessed, Wardell continues having students take short breaks during the day to do stretches.
“We don’t roll out the mats every time, but they stand at their desks and do different poses and we just breathe. It’s just little breaks throughout the day to help them focus,” she said.
For example, before a math test, they may stand up and find a quiet place in the room, close their eyes and breathe.
“I let them do five different yoga poses and then let them get back to their math. It helps them reset and just take a break of the stress,” Wardell said.
Fourth-grader Cannon Christensen said he has even done it on his own to reset his focus and energy.
“A couple days ago, I just took a few seconds, did some poses and took some deep breaths,” he said. “I was able to calm down and control my own mind and my own actions and it even gave me energy.”
Classmate Avery Dekle agrees. “It’s really calming, and the breathing helps with anxiety. Plus, I like how it stretches my body.”
Every couple weeks, the fourth-graders get out the mats for longer yoga sessions.
Wardle said she begins simply.
“We don’t ever really think about our brain or our heart or our breath. It automatically does it on its own. So, we start with kind of giving it a little celebration for what it does for us. We stop, close our eyes and listen to all the sounds around. I’m just teaching them to hold still and be mindful of different things. Some will say, ‘I’ve never done that before,’” she said. “I start small, with something simple, then we listen to sounds and they like how it makes them feel.”
Earlier this school year, the class created a list of quality traits — grateful, hard-working, attentive, believing in themselves — that they want to be aware of doing every day. Now, Wardell puts two fingers in the air and “they stop, and everyone puts their two hands over their heart and we just breathe for two minutes. We think about a word like ‘happiness’ and we all share what makes us happy that day.”
Wardell said yoga also helps students gain confidence in their own skills, overcome fears and calms them to rethink friendships and family matters. It also has taught them character traits and life skills, such as proper behavior, problem-solving and conflict-resolution as well as being kind.
“At the beginning of the year, there’s always kids who come in who are nice and then sometimes those who are not real nice, and it makes them realize there’s a better way,” she said.
Wardell said it is a process every year.
“At the beginning, kids may laugh or giggle and that’s fine. We build on it. We may say 'let’s try being still for 15 seconds,' then 'let’s try for one minute' and then it’s really quiet and I know they’re concentrating. They’re discovering it’s helpful for them to learn to calm their whole mind and their whole body,” she said. “They’ve come a long way because when we started, everyone was falling over and laughing. I said, ‘Yoga is not goofiness, you’re learning to train your body to be still and mindful of the present right now’ and soon all the distractions faded out.”
Nowadays, students face fears of academic assignments, being safe at school or feel pressures of sports or performances, and uncertainty and anxiety seemed to increase during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wardell said.
“We can’t always change the situation; we just have to change our dealing with it, and this is a good way to approach things that come our way that are stressful. Yoga is a good life skill to have; I’m going to do it the rest of my life,” she said.
It also helps some students who may not be turning in assignments, by learning “how to focus and concentrate so they can start caring about it and being more mindful of their responsibility and their education,” Wardell added.
By mid-school year, students come up to Wardell to demonstrate how they mastered a new skill. Every student has their favorites, whether it’s the drinking bird or halfmoon star goddess, she said, adding that a favorite she created is a flying eagle pose where students spread their “wings.”
Eden Myntti has mastered the sideways crow pose; Ava Glazier likes doing the tree to help relax; Stockton Affleck said he likes the spider best.
“It makes me feel strong,” he said. “Yoga is super fun, but it helps me relax and have all my pressures-like if I’m afraid I will lose a paper or if something will happen-just disappear. It makes me feel as if I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Ellis Lussier agrees. “Yoga just relieves my body of stress and in my mind, I feel free, and am able to believe in myself.”
Hazel Tingey said it lifts her mood. “I’m just a lot happier and ready to do what I want afterward.”
Some students, like Everett Kirkland, have had older siblings in Wardell’s class so they may have already learned some poses. Parents, too, she said, have been supportive, even purchasing the mats they use, or practicing poses with their children at home.
Many of the students said they’ve started doing yoga on their own.
Brayden Caiden said he will do yoga poses at home so he is able to focus on his homework before he plays basketball or soccer, and his classmate Claire Nelson will practice yoga to set her mind knowing she can do hard things, like learn her piano lessons. Their classmate, Carson Duke, will arrive before school to hear nature sounds as he does the tree pose waiting for the bell to ring.
It’s a way Wardell can help all students in her class with social-emotional learning while still teaching the required curriculum.
“We always talk about calming and being mindful of greatness, so I was writing on the board ‘mindful marvelous’ and they said, 'if it’s OK, Mrs. Wardell, it should be ‘magnificent,’'” she said. “So now we begin by saying ‘mindful magnificent me’ and we’re ready to start our day of learning.”