Teaching to the Mind, Body and Spirit of Our Students

Article first appeared in issue 105 of iT's for Teachers

Christine McArdle-Oquendo

In 2003 Christine McArdle-Oquendo created a teacher training programme for children's yoga called OM Shree OM, which she teaches internationally. She is a co-founder of World Family Yoga, which leads family yoga retreats worldwide. In this article she looks at ways of using yoga in the classroom and suggests some activities you can do with your students.

Christine McArdle Oquendo with a group of children"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
-W. B. Yeats.

Yoga is an ancient practice that balances, and brings harmony and freedom to our inner and outer worlds, and to our indivisible mind, body and spirit. Since these aspects or forces within us are all really one, by working with one you influence all of the others. As teachers we know that a student who is physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy is a student who is in optimum learning and growing form, while those who are more challenged in any of these areas aren't often our highest-performing students. By introducing simple yogic practices into your classes, including simple breathing techniques, stretches or physical postures, visualizations and/or meditations, you will touch your students in a profound way. You will potentially touch a child's core and ignite their inner fire.

There is a special place in my heart for teaching adolescents and pre-adolescents. Their minds, bodies and spirits are blossoming and raging. It is such an intense cycle of transition and growth. I have found that yoga is especially beneficial to this age group, and they adore the practice.

Before trying any activities in class, ask your students to tell you what they know about yoga. They will probably say that their mother or father does yoga and it involves twisting the body into strange postures or relaxing. Inevitably someone will close their eyes, sit cross-legged, face the palms of their hands towards the sky and touch their index finger to their thumb as they chant "Ooooommmmm". Yes, your students know a bit about yoga because it's everywhere today - in gym classes, in offices, on magazine covers, in TV advertisements - so why not bring its benefits into your language class, too?

Below is a brief look at the mind, body and spirit of an adolescent followed by yogic activities that will compliment them.

Mind

"Who am I?" "Where am I from?" "Who really are my parents?" "How is the world in the situation that it is in?" "Where am I headed?" "Where do I fit in?" "Who are my true friends?" "WHY?" This incessant voice is rarely free of doubt and fear in an adolescent; and it races nervously, charged and passionate. It challenges and wants to feel secure. It wants to be heard, respected and understood. I recommend two different activities for them: Savasana (relaxation) and simple guided visualizations. The first is used to help students truly feel inside of themselves and learn to relax the mind/body, while the second can help your students pause, quiet the mind and begin to listen to the more peaceful, inner teacher who is heard best in moments of silence and peace.

Christine leads SavasanaDoing yoga activities in class involves students following instructions, which usually refer to different parts of the body. It's a good idea to teach or review the vocabulary involved. Draw an outline of a human body on the board and go through the following words as your students touch and identify the areas on their own bodies and act out the verbs: toes, feet, legs, calves, knee, thighs, hips, lower back, upper back, belly, spine, fingers, hands, palms, arms, shoulders and shoulder blades, neck, head, crown of the head, eyes, forehead, chin, chest, inhale, exhale, relax. In the case of a guided visualization, you may list and review some vocabulary that you intend to use on the board in advance

  • Savasana or corpse pose, is a pose whose name in English was loosely translated to "relaxation." It is a pose saved for the end of a yoga practice, a pose in which we are invited to simply surrender the body while the mind is emptied of all thoughts and worries and feels free, present and calm. What a blessing for an adolescent! Savasana is usually most students' favourite pose!
    Have your students remove their shoes and lie on their backs on the floor, feet slightly apart, arms at their sides with palms facing up. If you don't have the floor space, have everyone sit comfortably in their chairs. Put on your most calm, sweet and slow voice and enjoy as you instruct them: "Take a few deep breaths. Fill your lungs completely. Inhale through your nose and then exhale through your mouth. Let's repeat this three times together, inhaling and exhaling completely. ... Now slowly start to breathe normally, and close your eyes. Let your body sink into the ground [or chair]. Now focus on your feet and let them relax. Feel your feet sinking into the floor." Continue the activity up the rest of the body to the face and head: "See your thoughts as clouds that move in through one ear and out through the other, allowing the mind to be empty and free. And for the next few minutes, just relax, enjoy this time of rest and restoration." After a few minutes pass and you begin to see some fidgeting amongst your students, gently bring them out by ringing a little bell or saying, "When you're ready, open your eyes and stretch gently."

  • Guided visualizations
    With our eyes closed and body relaxed, we can allow the imagination and the subconscious to be freed as our auditory skills are sharpened. Here is an example of a guided visualization that touches on self-esteem.
    Bring your students into a gentle, relaxed state and then begin: "Now, in your mind's eye see yourself outside. It could be anywhere - at a beach, in the rain forest, on a hillside. You may be familiar with the area already or it may be completely brand-new. Notice where you are in detail - the colours surrounding you, the sounds, the smells - notice what you are wearing and how you feel. Suddenly you notice in the distance that someone needs your help. You sense it, you perceive it and you react swiftly. You use all of your strength to get to that person - or perhaps it's an animal. Once there you find that you have all of the necessary skills to take care of them. Watch yourself work swiftly with care, with precision. In a short amount of time, thanks to your help, they are well again. You look into each other's eyes and you feel a deep inner connection to that person or animal, as though you have met them before. They thank you and you say goodbye. You move away from the scene, and little by little you see it fade. Come to your breath. I am going to count to 10. When we reach 10, gently allow your eyes to open."
    Now ask your students if there is anyone who would like to share their experience with the class, or you may want to have everyone work with a partner to share. This could also be turned into a writing exercise where everyone writes about their experience. Be sensitive to your students' reactions to guided visualizations. If someone doesn't want to share, that should be OK. An intense memory may have been triggered. You may want them to simply draw a picture and write a few key words, thoughts or feelings down in their notebooks.


Body

yoga classWhat an extraordinary and beautiful time in one's physical development adolescence is! A true blossoming occurs. The hormonal fountain is opened, and a surge of newfound emotions are experienced. During this magic stage, we are so very aware of the physical body. We can help our students feel at home in their new skin and at the same time help to instill healthy alignment habits as they release stress and increase vitality. Following are some simple techniques that can be used at the beginning of class, in between lessons and certainly before any testing. The activities you can do depend a great deal on the space available and the number of students in the class. Start with a simple sequence that students will be able to do in class, memorise, and then practice at home. The Warrior sequence below is popular with teenagers. It strengthens legs and arms, improves balance and concentration, and builds confidence. Mountain pose is simple but powerful as it is grounding and expanding at the same time. Be sure to remind students to move their arms with their breath.

  • A modified mountain pose or Samastiti
    Have your students stand with their feet parallel, toes pointing straight ahead, arms by their sides. "Lift your toes and feel the muscles in the legs activate, from your feet to your calves, to your thighs and hips. Inhale, and as you exhale feel your body connect with the ground through your feet. Now inhale and lift your arms up over your head, exhale and extend through your body, up through your arms and fingers. Now inhale, and then exhale, reaching your arms higher towards the sky. At the same time feel your legs and feet rooted firmly to the earth. Feel the body expand in both directions, like a tree growing. On your next exhalation, extend your arms like wings as you lower them to your sides, moving with the breath." Move with your breath in this way a few times.

  • Warrior I to Warrior II
    "Stand with your feet together and your hands at your side. Now breathe in, and as you exhale step your right foot back about four to five feet. Keep the back foot turned in about 60 degrees. Inhale again, and on your exhale slowly bend the front, left knee creating a 90-degree square. Keep the back leg straight, strong and rooting into the earth. Inhale again, and as you exhale lift both arms over head, palms facing each other, extended completely. Be strong and determined, a warrior. Good! Now let's shift into Warrior II. Take a nice deep inhalation, and as you exhale twist your torso to the right slightly as you lower your arms to shoulder height. Turn your head to gaze over your left hand. Surfing warrior. Feel the pose from deep inside, with each breath become stronger. Beautiful! Now inhale, and as you exhale straighten your legs and release your arms to your side, and then step your feet together." Now repeat the two positions on the other side.

Spirit

Our spirit is often defined as our soul or the invisible strand of consciousness that flows through us and connects each of us. It is a concept that goes beyond one's religion or religious beliefs. It is the awareness of our true nature. In today's secularised academic world, the notion of spirit is ignored and does not have a place in the classroom. A wonderful way to acknowledge and honour this huge force that is alive and pulsating in our students is through silent contemplation or meditation, breathing exercises (what yogis call pranayama) and chanting. These simple techniques not only bring us focus, clarity and serenity, but they directly help us to tap into and experience glimpses of the profound well of universal truth and understanding, that indescribable, indefinable energy. Children are well aware of it and take it for granted, while adolescents are fascinated by it. A typical response to any of these exercises by an adolescent is, "That was cool!"

  • Three-part breath
    In this breath we fill the lungs in three parts, first the bottom, then the middle, and finally the top, as though we were filling a glass with water. "Take a comfortable seated position. Sit with your spine straight and tall, and shoulders back. Take a few deep breaths to relax. Then begin with the following. Bring one hand onto your belly. We are going to take three sips of breath in such a way that our entire lungs are filled to their maximum. Take one sip in now, direct it to your lower belly where your hand is, then move your hand up a little and draw in the second sip of breath, holding the breath, now move your hands up more and take in one more sip of air. Hold for three seconds and release completely. Exhale starting from your upper lungs, middle and finally lower." Repeat this a few times together, with or without the use of the hands as a guide, then allow your students to continue at their own pace, always with their eyes closed, for another minute or two.

  • A simple meditation technique
    While your students are sitting in a comfortable upright position, with their hands placed palms up on their laps, ask your students to take three deep breaths and exhale through their mouth. On their third inhalation, ask them to slowly close their eyes. "Allow your breath to flow more naturally now, inhaling and exhaling through the nose. Relax all the muscles in your face. Concentrate on your breath and only your breath. It's natural for the mind to wander, but we are always going to bring it back to the breath. I will help you initially by counting your breaths in this way: Inhale 1, exhale 1, inhale 2, exhale 2, inhale 3, exhale 3, inhale 4, exhale 4. And now I am going to be silent. You can choose to count your breaths or just concentrate on the movement of breath in your body. As thoughts come into your mind, don't become attached to them or follow their thinking. Release them and return your attention to your breath. Let's do this for three minutes. I will let you know when three minutes have passed."

  • Chanting the sounds of the chakras
    In addition to being meditative, calming and increasing one's focus and attention, chanting, like all singing, opens the vocal cords, while different sounds stimulate different parts of the body. Try the following two sequences of sounds and notice where you hear and feel the sounds in your body. The sound vibration literally balances points of energy throughout the body, commonly known as the chakras. Take a comfortable seated position, breathe in deeply, and then begin chanting on your exhalation. Take one breath per syllable. Keep your eyes closed and sit quietly after the chants and just feel the sensations in your body.
    "LAM" "VAM" "RAM" "YAM" "HAM" "OM"
    "DO" "RE" "MI" "FA" "SO" "LA" "TI"

We all teach and share best that which we understand from experience. If you have never practiced yoga, ask for referrals from friends who have. There is a yoga class for everyone! I recommend trying different styles and teachers to find the one that truly speaks to you. Once you're comfortable, share with your students! So much magic and joy awaits you. Your teaching may take on a whole new dimension, one that deeply enriches the mind, body and spirit of your students!


Christine McArdle-Oquendo was born in New York City and grew up in Madrid, Spain. She has her master's in education and has training in Montessori and Waldorf educational styles. She has taught children in both public and private school settings and teachers at the university level. Christine started teaching yoga five years ago and has over 500 hours of yoga training. Seeing a great need in the yoga community, in 2003 Christine created a teacher training programme for children's yoga. She is a co-founder of World Family Yoga.


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