How yoga helps students relax, focus, deal with stress – Arizona Education News Service

The day before Sun Valley High School students’ research papers were due, Moonstone Yoga’s Jennifer Shifler led them and their teacher through breathing and yoga exercises to help them reduce stress and relax.

For the past three years, Shifler has led sessions each Friday
morning before tutoring begins at the Title I charter school in Mesa, and educators
and administrators there say it has helped increase students’ concentration, their
ability to monitor their emotions and develop positive responses to stressful situations.

“Yoga’s been amazing. Truly. Especially during the school year, it helps so much with focus, and controlling anxiety,” said Crista Procopio, who teaches English and psychology at the school managed by The Leona Group and accredited by AdvancedED.

Video by Mary Irish/AZEdNews: How yoga is helping students

It’s also helped students with “being introspective with what
you need to do in your life to be successful,” as well as understanding  “how the world is working around you,”
Procopio said.

Teachers had been using what they’d learned about mindfulness
in their classrooms, and “we’d been talking about kids being aware of things
like their heart rate and breathing, so it seemed sort of a logical progression
to bring yoga onto the campus and to use it in the classroom,” said Telleny
Gilliam, school leader.

“It has given the kids a way to monitor their own response to
stress” and “helps them work themselves through it in a more positive way,”
Gilliam said.

Developing a student-centered yoga curriculum

Shifler had been teaching for nine years when she started using
breathing and yoga techniques with her kindergarteners and noticed how it
helped them “get the wiggles out” and focus on their classwork.

“The students loved the movement, the break, and some enjoyed the sounds of the breathing,” Shifler said. “It was evident that it was working when immediately afterwards, we could get to our content without interruption, with focus.” 

How yoga helps students relax, focus, deal with stress DSC_0077-Smaller
Moonstone Yoga owner and instructor Jen Shifler, left, leads Sun Valley High School students and their teacher in a yoga session on June 13, 2019. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

After completing her yoga training, Shifler wanted to share
what she learned with students at Sun Valley, the high school she graduated
from. To do that, Shifler developed her Rise and Shine yoga curriculum for
students of all ages that includes important life skills and lessons. 

Shifler starts each topic-driven session getting to know
students with a simple activity.

“No matter the age group, I find it extremely important to
connect with the students on a level that they can relate to,” Shifler said. “I
also cover some of the science behind the practice and breathing, that way it
doesn’t seem so scary, and they want to have info that they can recall. The why
is so important to most learners of every level.” 

The curriculum helps students connect with each other through an
activity with a topic.

“We’ve covered such topics as responsibility, the power of yet, small choice and great affect,” Shifler said. “We’ve done a number of mindfulness activities such as study of ecosystems, which is big in a diverse populations, and the yarn toss activity that sheds greater awareness and understanding of interconnection.”

How yoga helps students relax, focus, deal with stress DSC_0020-1024x680
Sun Valley High School Teacher Crista Procopio, center, and her students take part in a yoga session led by Jennifer Shifler with Moonstone Yoga on June 13, 2019. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

During the Sun Valley High School session, students shared
that they liked to sing, play video games, box, play with their dog and their
teacher said she was moving into a new home and it was stressful. Each time
someone shared something they held a bit of the yarn strand and tossed the yarn
ball to another person to do the same.

Shifler said students and teachers always learn something new
about each other during the yarn toss activity and how connected they are despite
their differences.

“It’s also incredible visual for showing how even the smallest
actions that we make can impact those around us,” Shifler said. “Students want
to feel connected and they want to contribute. These activities allow both.” 

When Shifler asked a student to let go of  their strand of yarn, the web of yarn changed
dramatically, and she pointed out how that small action affected the group.

“What I want you guys to see from this is first of all, you
guys know just a little more about each other than you did before, and second
of all, just thinking about those teeny tiny actions and teeny tiny choices
that affect those around us,” Shifler said.

Shifler encouraged students to keep that in mind, think positively and do small things for each other like “holding the door for someone or smiling at someone” and for themselves such as “giving your assignment three more minutes or reading that book four more minutes.”

Breathing techniques are key

After the opening activity, students and teachers take note of how they are showing up
for the session, then begin changing their breathing patterns to align with the
yoga movements they do, Shifler said.  

Many students come to school dealing with stress from their living
conditions, family situations or heavy workloads, which can lead to anxiousness,
or social or emotional difficulties, Shifler said. 

Within minutes of doing
breathing techniques, Shifler said she can see positive changes in the students.

“By the end of the
class, students hold themselves with more confidence, they are eager to help
out, they open up and hold a new sense of focus,” Shifler said.

These breathing
techniques can be used anywhere without attracting attention, and they really
help students, Shifler said. 

“No doubt the physical movement is beneficial in numerous
ways, but the breath work and the ability to take-notice-of or for students to
become the observers of their feelings, mind and body is a huge individual
success,” Shifler said.

While some students may be hesitant at first, “98 percent of
the time they leave with a different demeanor, a confidence and compliments or
questions asking why certain things worked so well,” Shifler said.

This year, Shifler said she would like to work more with teachers,
because what they learn to embody, they will share with students.

AZ resources for using yoga in schools

Sun Valley High School is one of a number of Arizona schools
finding that using yoga and mindfulness benefits their students.

Educators at Holiday Park Elementary in the Cartwright Elementary School District have also found that using yoga, teaching students about how the brain reacts to stress, and encouraging mindfulness and self-reflection have helped students, staff and reduced behavior referrals to the principal.

Students at the former Arrowhead Elementary School in Paradise Valley Unified School District learned strategies to help them self-regulate during stressful situations, and teachers use social and emotional learning strategies such as class meetings, daily check-ins, calming spaces and mindful movement to increase students’ resilience.

Schools looking to help students by using these practices can also find resources through Kohl’s Mindful Me program through Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium founded by Marcia Stanton.  

Helping students navigate life’s stresses

As the session ended, Shifler led the students through savasana
to relax their minds and bodies.  

Then Shifler asked them focus on their breathing, picture
someone they are thankful for, send them a little smile, and do the same to themselves.

Afterwards, Shifler encouraged them to put their hands in their
heart space, then she said to them, “The love and life source in me honors the
love and life source in all of you. Thank you guys for showing up, and namasté
friends. You guys did so awesome.”

Gilliam said she would like to expand the yoga program on
campus next year, and she encourages schools considering offering yoga on
campus to do it.

“Our goal as secondary educators is to prepare these kids for
the real world,” Gilliam said. “In the real world, you can’t get upset and
storm out. In the real world, you have to be able to deal with stresses as they
come at you. So any tools that we can provide to our students to better operate
in a stress-filled world, that’s a program that we’re interested in.”

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