Anchor breath is one of my favorite practices to teach my students. Anchor breath is the practice of using your breath to help focus your mind on one point. The instructions are to place your hand where you most feel the breath in your body. I offer three options: on your belly, on your chest, or in front of your nose. Some of my students choose to place their hands on their rib cage. That works too!
The placement of your hand and the sensation of breath is your anchor spot. The anchor spot is where you put your attention. As you breathe in, keep your attention on your anchor spot; as you breathe out, keep your attention on your anchor spot and repeat for a length of time. I usually start with 1-3 minutes depending on the group I am teaching. Once you notice you are not focused on your breath (maybe distracted by sounds, movements, thoughts) and that your attention has shifted, gently bring your attention back to your anchor spot.
The practice is to gently bring your mind back. For example, noticing “oh my mind has wandered” and then bringing the mind back to the anchor spot. Rather than get frustrated with your mind and thinking “ugh my mind is so stupid! What is wrong with me? I can’t focus!,” you notice you’ve lost focus and bring your attention back to your breath, to your anchor. Though the instructions are simple, the practice can be quite challenging since the mind is a thought-making machine.
When I offer this practice to my students, I want it to be relevant and engaging for them. Fortunately, there are many ways to share anchor breath with your students. I start by asking myself what is my intention to share this practice with this group of students? I have to be clear about why I want to teach the practice in order for it to be more interesting for my students and myself.
Here are three ways to explore anchor breath with your students:
1. Mental Training
I often first introduce anchor breath as a way to train the mind. I ask students if they have ever been told to pay attention. The most common response is yes. I then ask if they have ever been taught how to pay attention. The most common response is no.
I share the story of when I was in school and was also told to pay attention, but never taught how. What I learned was to look in the direction of the teacher and occasionally nod my head, maybe make a face of interest, and that was paying attention. Even if my thoughts were about the upcoming weekend, my friends, or what happened earlier in the day, I could look like I was paying attention. Many students are amused by my honesty and they relate to the story.
I explain that our minds are thought making machines. We cannot stop the process of thinking. We can notice when we choose to pay attention to something, however, and when we are not paying attention, we can bring our minds back to what we want to pay attention to.
It’s important that I set this activity up so that my students understand this is mental training for whatever is interesting to them, not just a way to be better at school. The most common interests for my students are sports, music, video games, and friends. Mental training can help us become more focused at playing sports, learning music, playing video games and even being a better friend. Many of us have had the experience of a friend talking to us and they say something that makes us go into our own thoughts. Midway through the conversation we realize we weren’t listening to our friend and now our friend is upset with us. When we can learn to direct our attention to our friends, notice when we aren’t listening, and bring our attention back to them, it helps to be a more attentive friend.
It’s important to explain that anchor breath is a practice. We are building the attention muscle in our mind. Just like a person that lifts weights has to continue to pick up and put down the weight to get stronger, we have to notice when our mind wanders to bring it back to build our attention muscle. Once my students have an understanding of what it means to focus, we then practice anchor breath.
2. Negative Self Talk
Once my students understand the idea of using anchor breath for mental training, I offer a new way to approach the practice. I want to encourage my students to be curious about their thoughts and build awareness around negative self-talk. We begin with a group discussion about thoughts. Is every thought we think true? After some debate among the students I ask them what thoughts they have that are true. The most common responses are most often pragmatic: 1+1=2 so that thought is true, and gravity exists so that is true too.
The follow-up question is: what thoughts might you have that may not be true? There is often a pause and then a student will say, “I’m stupid”, “I’m a failure”, “I can’t do this”, and “I’m ugly.” I honor their bravery sharing these negative and vulnerable thoughts and ask the group to raise their hands if they too have ever had those thoughts. Most students raise their hand and share they have experienced these thoughts.
I share my story of my thoughts and beliefs around feeling not good enough for years. I had this ‘not good enough’ belief around school, sports, family life and friendships. I felt like everything I did wasn’t good enough. One day when I told a friend I wasn’t good enough to do something, my friend asked who had told me that I wasn’t good enough. It stopped me in my tracks. The thought felt so true, I never paused to question it. Why did I have this belief about myself? Where did I learn this belief? And most importantly, do I want to continue this belief? This awareness of my negative thought pattern allowed me to actively work on replacing it with a more serving thought.
Rather than accepting the unconscious thoughts we learned, we begin to explore what we choose to believe about ourselves. We gain insight into who we are and want to be. Our thoughts can support us or hold us back on the journey.
In this version of the activity, we add a layer of curiosity. When the mind wanders we pause and watch with kindness and curiosity what thoughts appear before we bring our attention back to our anchor spot.
3. What is my mind working on?
We can use this practice as a way to learn more about ourselves. I share Kobe Bryant’s story about when he decided he was ready to retire from basketball. Kobe Bryant played for the LA Lakers for twenty years. In an interview he spoke about how for most of his career whenever he would practice mindfulness, he would notice his thoughts always went to basketball.
Later in Kobe’s career, during his mindfulness practice, his thoughts would go to other interests and not dwell as much on basketball. When he focused on where his thoughts wandered to, he realized he had new interests and passions he wanted to pursue. This realization helped him decide he was ready to retire from basketball.
When we practice anchor breath, we have the same opportunity to learn more about ourselves. We can notice when our mind wanders and where it wanders to. We get clarity on what our minds are working on. What are we feeling excited, passionate, stressed, upset about, or interested in? Instead of our thoughts being background music to our day, we get the opportunity to spotlight them and learn more about how we are doing and what is important to us.
Anchor Breath is a simple but powerful activity. It can support the ability to focus and reduce rumination. It can also support your students in having a greater understanding of their thoughts and how it connects to the way they experience the world.
If you think your students would like to know more about the way mindfulness supports athletes, you might want to check out the Golden State Warriors’ core values, which include mindfulness. If you are interested to learn more about the process of inquiry in regards to negative self-talk you can check out Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is. Her work includes a four step process that teaches you to identify and question the thoughts and beliefs that cause suffering.
Also, click here for a recording of a five minute mindful breathing practice from mindful.org.
I hope these resources support you as you explore and introduce Anchor Breath and other mindfulness of breath activities to your students.
ABOUT ABIGAIL WILBER
Abigail Wilber (E-RYT, RCYT) is a teacher trainer and senior teacher for Little Flower Yoga. She is a certified Empowerment workshop trainer, has additional training in breath, anatomy and movement with Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, and has studied with Mindful Schools. Abby has many years of experience in working with typically developing children, as well as children who have special needs in grades K-12. Her passion is to empower children and to support parents in empowering their children. She is featured in GoNoodle’s Empower Tools videos.
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Life comes with a lot of challenges. Sometimes these challenges can lead to frustration. I find one of my most effective ways to empower the children I work with is to give them tools that help them navigate big emotional experiences, like frustration. What triggers frustration can be different for each individual. Some examples of triggers are: chores, homework, a fight with a friend, learning to play an instrument, and feeling misunderstood. My hope is for students to recognize the onset of frustration and know they have the resources to care for their feelings.
Here are a few activities to help students recognize the onset of frustration and learn how to care for themselves, along with a short video practice that you can do any time or place.
Activity #1: Create a Frustration List
Challenging situations arise daily. It is useful for children to know what situations cause them frustration. We have more control over our emotions when we can label what is happening during an experience.
With older students, have a discussion about the frustrating moments in their lives. After the discussion, have students make a list of what causes them feelings of frustration. It will help them feel more in control when they talk and reflect on situations that trigger frustration. Encourage them to observe over the next few days what happens in their bodies during those moments of frustration.
A visual aid can be helpful for younger students when making a list. Create an outline of a flower and cut out petals. On each petal write something that causes frustration. Keep the flower visible and encourage children to add petals when new frustrating tasks arise.
Activity #2: Make a Body Map
Body mapping can help children make connections between their bodies and their emotions. Use a body outline template or outline a body on a big roll of paper.
Ask the child to think about a time they felt frustrated and notice what happens to their body. Some observations might be fists clenching, face feels hot, shoulders and jaw tense up, or breath changes. Explain that these sensations are their body’s way of communicating with them. Have the child color, draw, or write in the areas on the body map where they feel sensation when they feel frustrated.
Activity #3: Tense and Release
When students can recognize sensations of their body, they can begin to care for their emotions.
Tense and release, also known as progressive muscle relaxation, is a technique to promote relaxation in the body and relieve stress. This practice can be taught before a frustrating task. Take a slow deep breath and squeeze the muscle groups in your body that feel tight during frustration, such as fists and shoulders. Hold for 3-5 seconds, then release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them. Tense and release those areas a few times and check in with how they are feeling.
This exercise will help to lower tension in the body, and help relax in moments of frustration.
Activity #4: Practice the Pause with Challenging Yoga Poses
Explore frustration in a playful way with balance poses.
Tell your students you are going to practice challenging poses and they may feel frustration. When they start to feel frustration they can pause, take a breath and try the pose again. This video will show you how to prepare a child to pause and care for themselves during feelings of frustration.
Check out the 4 minute video below for a great example of how we can safely explore frustration while caring for ourselves. I had the honor to be a part of a series of videos created by Little Flower Yoga’s in collaboration with GoNoodle. GoNoodle helps teachers and parents get kids moving with short interactive activities. You can find the full series of videos by searching for the Empower tools series on GoNoodle's website.