Masochistic Perceptions, Trials and Truths

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Meditation In Schools

An Experience

Meditation and Yoga have found their way into our schools and appear to be growing in popularity as research expands on what potential positives can be gained through such practises. Based on my experiences, I am a strong-but-cautious supporter of seeing this happen. 

I've been practising Yoga and Meditation going on two decades and am beginning my 8th year of teaching in the classroom. The two have often intertwined. Up until last year, I had focused primarily on adult literacy and teaching inner city junior high school special needs students. I would often employ Yoga and breathing techniques throughout the year, and usually offered Yoga classes during our health week, but did not have a daily practise for my students. I don't know why, as the students tended to enjoy doing it, and the change in classroom energy was often positive. Then, last year, I took on a new assignment, teaching in a special elementary programme for new Canadians. While teaching my students English is a big part of the programme, it was is your typical ELL class. The students in my class are from refugee backgrounds, many of whom had never been to school, so my mandate is to acclimatise them to a Canadian school environment. This was a task that is both exhausting and rewarding. As you can imagine, my students have been subjected to significant trauma (this past year, all of my students had fled the conflict in Somalia via a couple of other countries), and the life skills needed to survive in a refugee camp are often quite different than those social skills needed in a Canadian school. There is often violence and, sometimes, the strains of PTSD, living in a foreign culture and the stress of living in the inner city are evident.

So, at the beginning of last year, I introduced Yoga, Meditation and chanting. I was surprised at how quickly I got the students to buy in. 

The Yoga I introduced utilised primarily compression techniques that, through learning about dealing with behaviour and special needs learners, allowed a controlled focus of energies that might otherwise manifest themselves in negative behaviours. This gradually expanded into balancing asanas to assist in focusing the mind and poses to allow for a sense of release.

Meditation was a little trickier to bring in. First of all, my students were all devote Muslims and I had to make it very clear that I was not trying to make them pray to another god or convert them. So meditation started off as "statues" where I attempted to establish good sitting posture, making a game of who could sit the stillest and the quietest the longest. Once this was working, breathing techniques were introduced and, by the middle of the year, the students understood the science behind the breathing as it pertains to stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, regulating the body's stress levels and interactions with anxiety.

Finally, I introduced kirtan style chanting. This was based on tones and rhythms - body vibrations - as opposed to focusing on the words (many of the chants were Hindu mantras). I used chants that were primarily non-secular, though Krishna, Shiva and Hanuman did get a fair amount of spin. These children love to sing, and they would put their whole hearts into their mantras. From what I experience while chanting, the vibrations do touch the body in a profound way, and the energy created is quite lovely. I love sounding off the "Om" or "Aum" at the end of a Yoga class.

Just a small anecdote on this strand: at the end of the year I took my students on a marathon day trip to the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies. The kids were getting excited as we were approaching our stop on the massive ice buses they have there, so I said "guys, relax and meditate". And they did. They all started chanting "Om Namah Shivaya". What made this particularly wonderful is that the bus was full of tourists from India who, upon hearing these small African children chanting in Sanskrit, were all smiles.

This practise is how each day was commenced in my classroom, and took us approximately 20 minutes first thing each morning. The impact was profound and positive and the change in classroom energy was incredible. Techniques from our morning practise extended through the day as "posture" and "breathing" were often employed as cues to calm down potentially negative events. I believe that it benefited the students and was a positive contributing factor to their successes. I also believe that it taught my students in particular, how to better respond when upset or agitated. This being said, it was not all roses and, ultimately, a practise - not perfection.

In my introduction, I mentioned caution in regards to seeing a wider application of Yoga and Meditation techniques in our schools. This caution lies in the fact that most teachers are not trained Yogis, and it is not a simple curriculum that can be read and implemented. A massive part in successful application resides in the teacher themselves having a regular practise and developing understanding of the techniques. Certainly we see this in the world of Yoga today which has become a fashion and is pumping out inexperienced teachers like Starbucks pumps out coffee. Ours is a society that often popularises and dilutes things as a way of capitalising on a prospective profit. School teachers are more often than not being asked to teach outside of their area of speciality. While many do a great job, others struggle and this trickles down to the students in the classroom. All I am saying is that teachers, if they are to bring Yoga and Meditation techniques into their classroom, need to have PD and support, but also need to be an active participant in the whole undertaking. If we do that, the results, in my opinion, will speak for themselves.


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