• Finding Your Anchor: 3 Creative Ways to Explore Mindful Breathing with Your Students

    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. 


    When we are curious about our thoughts, we are able to question what thoughts serve or don’t serve our well-being. We are empowered to choose what we want to believe about ourselves, others, and the world around us. 


    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. 


    “I try to have at least 15 minutes of still time and just kind of sit in my thoughts in the morning and just kind of meditate. And normally what happens with me is my mind would always drift to the game. Always," he said. "And then I found myself sitting there. My mind wouldn't drift towards the game all the time anymore. And that's when I started realizing, ‘You know what? It's getting close. It's getting close.’ Because now I'm not obsessively thinking about the game anymore. It's not wired into my subconscious the way it used to be.” 


    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.  



    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.


    We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. If you are interested in purchasing any of the resources mentioned above, you can help support free programs like Mindful Mondays by navigating to them through the included links. Thank you for your support!

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  • Mindful Mondays: Mindfulness Supports Our Ability to Focus


    Children are often asked to focus and pay attention, but they’re not always explicitly told how to do it. Being able to focus can be extremely challenging for children and for adults.

    People often drive home without remembering if they stopped at all the stop signs, or they find themselves in a middle of a conversation they have lost track of, or, in the case of students, they may be unable to answer a question after having their names called upon repeatedly. This is because we often don’t even realize that we’ve lost focus. 


    In part this is because we are constantly bombarded with stimulus and information that our mind needs to sift through. Our phones add to the distraction and are shaping the way we interact with each other (increasingly via a screen) and the way we focus.


    Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, describes how the way we think is being altered by the internet. He argues, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.” Whether it is true that the internet is making us shallow thinkers, it’s safe to say that our mind is being asked to process and think in ways that a lot of us didn’t do just five to ten years ago.


    Our kids are being raised in a world that demands this kind of disjointed thinking, and they don’t know any other way. They are being asked to understand and interact in ways that are vastly different than the way most adults around them were asked to. Carr explains “a popular medium [such as a cell phones, computers, and the internet] molds what we see and how we see it—and eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” This New York Times article collaborates these assertions by explaining how technology is rewiring our children’s minds so that they have a harder time focusing their attention and developing relationships outside of their digital persona.


    Perhaps that is part of the reason why so many students are disengaged from their education. Teachers College Record recently published Engaging Youth in Schools in which a study “using a sample of students from high-performing high schools . . . [found] that only 1/3 of the sample is regularly engaged affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively in schoolwork. This fully engaged minority, who tended to be higher achievers, were less likely to fall victim to a variety of health problems. On the other hand, lack of full engagement was associated with frequent worry, depression, anger, and compromised health outcomes.” Our students’ ability to engage with their education and benefit from it will depend on their ability to focus and maintain sustained focus.


    Mindfulness supports focus because it inserts a pause and slows us down enough so that we’re not jumping from one thought (or source of stimulus) to another.

    When we slow down or pause, we can realize we’ve lost focus and then place focus on what we need to be focusing on. These are two distinct skills—the ability to notice when we’ve lost focus and the ability to place our focus and attention where we want to place it. Mindfulness supports both by asking participants to pause and bring awareness to the moment and, if need be, to anchor their focus to help sustain attention.


    There is promising research on the way mindfulness supports youths’ ability for sustained attention and in reducing mind wandering. One study explains that “mindfulness-based interventions for youths have potential utility to improve attentional self-regulation.” The authors of the study call for more research to see how mindfulness operationally supports attention regulation. But they also believe there is enough empirical research suggesting that mindfulness training impacts our ability to regulate attention as measured by tasks that monitor conflicts in the information we’re processing.


    Another study describes undergraduate students in their early 20s who were randomly assigned to a two-week mindfulness intervention and then asked to complete a reading comprehension task based on the GRE and a working memory capacity task. It found that “mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE and the measure of working memory.” While this study is with young adults, it shows promise in the ability that mindfulness training has in supporting all our students’ abilities to focus and succeed in school.


    If we really want to support our children to do better in schools and be able to develop the abilities to focus and have sustained attention, we have to help them develop those skills. Mindfulness activities can help.


    Little Flower Yoga introduces activities to support students in noticing when they’ve lost attention as well as activities that help them anchor their attention. This helps students strengthen their ability to place their focus where it needs to be. Remember that it’s not a question of whether our kids will lose focus but rather what skills and strategies our students have to employ when they do lose focus. 

    This article is part of our Mindful Mondays initiative. Receive weekly emails with instructions for the practices of the week, links to guided practices, and suggestions for implementation by registering. The program is free for all. Sign up now to access this week's recorded practices for you and your students!


    Argos Gonzalez is a teacher, lecturer, and mindfulness and yoga instructor.  He has 13 years of experience teaching high school in the Bronx and teaches pre-service and in-service teachers at Hunter College School of Education in NY.  Argos is certified through both Mindful Schools and Little Flower Yoga (LFY), and currently serves as the director of professional development for The School Yoga Project, a program of LFY. For more information about Little Flower Yoga and The School Yoga Project, visit www.littlefloweryoga.com. Contact Argos by email at argos@littlefloweryoga.com

    We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. If you are interested in purchasing any of the resources mentioned above, you can help support free programs like Mindful Mondays by navigating to them through the included links. Thank you for your support!

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