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Breathing and Pedagogy

lime tree avenue Three semesters ago, in Spring 2009, I introduced a new element into my undergraduate teaching. I was coming back to the classroom after a semester of research leave, during which I had begun to more explicitly integrate my practice of yoga and meditation with my writing process. I knew from experience that taking a few moments to center myself, breathe deeply, and set clear intentions before I started to write greatly improved my creativity and productivity. I also knew that some of my students often had difficulty with detaching from technological or personal distractions and with focusing on the materials and activities of the class.

So, inspired by recent research in the neurosciences about how the brain responds to even very simple breath practice, I decided to introduce one minute of conscious breathing into the beginning of each class meeting. Here’s what I do: I ask my students to sit up straight and place both feet on the floor, rest their hands easily in their laps, and close their eyes. I set a timer for 60 seconds. During that time, approximately every 10 or 15 seconds, I offer gentle cues to my students, such as “just breathe easily”; “let your breath flow smoothly in and out”; or “imagine the word relax floating in the space behind your eyes.” Sometimes I suggest images (“imagine yourself as a tree—now, grow a little taller”) or a simple body scan (“relax your feet, relax your knees, relax your back; relax your shoulders, relax your neck, relax your jaw”). When the timer rings, everyone opens their eyes and we start the class lecture and discussion.

The Effects

I typically teach in the afternoon and my students are primarily working adults who commute to campus. By the time they arrive in my classroom, many of my students have either already attended two or three other classes, worked six or more hours at a job, or taken care of children and family responsibilities. Add to that an automobile commute of sometimes as much as 90 minutes each way, parking shortages at peak hours, and always-on cellphones, and you get a group of tired, wired, and often distracted students.

More often than I’d like, I myself arrive in class having just come out of a committee meeting, another class, or from rushing to make copies of a last-minute handout. Sometimes I’m tired and distracted too. Taking 60 seconds helps all of us set that stuff aside and fully arrive in the classroom and in the present moment. (Even though I don’t close my eyes as I guide my students through the exercise, I do breathe deeply and find it calming.) Doing it together as a class helps foster a kind of relaxed, yet aware, group energy that yoga teachers often talk about, but I only fully grasped once I stood in front of a class and saw and felt the effects of 30 people relaxing their shoulders at the same time.

The effects of this practice on my teaching have been extraordinarily positive. The quality of student attention and participation in class has definitely improved – not only in the aggregate, but over the weeks of the semester I often see individual students make clear progress in their focus and engagement with the material.

By explicitly framing our time together, the breathing practice has also helped me manage the sometimes awkward transition from pre-class casual conversations to actual lecture. I set up my materials, maybe chat with a few people as they arrive. At the start of the class period, I’ll announce department events or course reminders, then say, “ok, let’s take 60 seconds.” We do the breathing exercise, and then the class starts with everyone focused and ready to go.

Explaining the Exercise

I take time on the first day of class to explain the breathing exercise and why we’ll be doing it. I discuss the brain as an electrical system, and explain how closing your eyes and breathing for even just a minute increases the production of alpha waves, which produce a relaxed, yet focused mind. I talk about how relaxation rather than tension allows the body and the mind to work more effectively. And then in a gentle, light-hearted way, I ask for them to humor me and to join in this exercise. We try it on the first day of class, usually about 30 minutes in, so that they’ll know what to expect the second day. I ask that if they can’t or won’t participate in the exercise that they just sit quietly for 60 seconds to respect their peers.

I always call this simply “a breathing exercise” or “focusing time.” I am not teaching my students meditation or yoga and I don’t use any kind of spiritual language to describe what we’re doing. You don’t have to believe anything in order to experience a more productive physiological state in your body and your mind.

Student Response

At the beginning of the semester, I do get some funny looks from students, unless they’ve had a class with me before and know what to expect. But by the third or fourth week, I can see many of them smiling, eager to sit and breathe, no longer merely tolerating their strange professor. A few students will mention something to me directly, telling me that they have started breathing for a minute before studying or before taking tests in their other classes.

In a class of 30 students, there are also typically one or two who don’t like the exercise and who refuse to participate. That’s fine by me. I’m not going to force anyone to do anything that makes them uncomfortable. (But, I should note that sometimes those are the students who eventually take it up with very good results.)

In order to evaluate this experiment further, I added a question about the exercise to the supplemental course evaluation form I give out along with the university’s required evaluation at the end of the semester. I asked: “What do you think about the minute of focusing time at the beginning of class?” In each of the three semesters I’ve been doing this, student responses were 95% positive or neutral. Sample comments included: “a little awkward at first but I adjusted”; “It helped me focus on class and forget other stress. It was like a one-minute vacation”;”surprisingly helpful especially in the afternoon”; “not a big fan of this but I’m sure this is good for some people”; and “looked forward to it and sometimes implement it outside of school now.”

Caveats

Although I think this one-minute focusing time has tremendous benefits in my classroom, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone. Why has it worked so well for me? To start with: I’m tenured, I’m in my 40s, and I’ve been teaching for 18 years. I don’t think I would have tried this activity when I was a graduate student instructor or even a new faculty member. I have enough experience now to be able to experiment with new things and cope with the consequences, whatever they may be. Also, I teach small courses of about 30 students, rather than large lecture courses, and these are courses for majors, rather than core general education courses. Because of my schedule and course topics, I’ve never had a problem with insufficient enrollment (my classes are usually over-enrolled and I have to turn people away). So I had little to lose and a lot to gain by trying the breathing exercise.

Even so, the first day I did this with a class, I was a bit nervous. It felt kind of strange for me as well as for them. But by the second or third day I could already feel how well it was working in my classroom, and so I continued. By the end of Spring semester 2009 I knew I’d keep this as part of my pedagogical commitment to creating a good learning environment.

If you want to try this in your own classroom, I’d recommend practicing what you might say during the 60 seconds in order to figure out how long a minute feels and how slowly to speak. You don’t want to be talking the whole time, since the point is to let everyone’s brain relax a bit. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply saying “relax and just breathe” is enough. But chances are, you haven’t said that to your students before and it will feel odd.

Consciously breathing with your students is not for everyone. But if you give it a try or are already doing something similar, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Lincolnian]

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