If we bring kind and curious awareness to our breath, we get clear information on how we’re feeling. In addition to getting insight into our emotions, we also get information about our physical state because we connect with our autonomous nervous system. This can help us find balance even when we’re facing challenges or stressful situations. Think of the way the breath shifts when you face a challenge, are excited or nervous, or when you’re sleepy or energized. Moreover, mindfulness research “suggests that mindful breathing may help to reduce reactivity to repetitive thoughts” and “may offer psychological benefits above and beyond other credible brief stress-management exercises.” In other words, mindfulness of breath can also help reduce knee-jerk responses to rumination and decrease stress.
In the aforementioned research study, participants were “guided to become aware of physical sensations—especially those associated with the process of breathing—and to observe them without the intention of altering them.” Participants were simply asked to bring attention to the sensations of the breath without doing anything to change or manipulate the breath, yet bringing awareness to the breath in this simple way deeply supported healthy nervous system regulation as well as an ability to focus and manage stress.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, explains in his book Full Catastrophe Living that “there are two major ways of practicing mindfulness of breathing. One involves the formal discipline of making a specific time in which you stop all activity, assume a special posture, and dwell for some time in moment-to-moment awareness of the inbreathe and the outbreath…. The second way of practicing using the breath is to be mindful from time to time during the day, or even all day long, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.” In other words, mindfulness of breath can support us at any time, as long as we can remember to pause and bring awareness to the breath.
In this spirit, Little Flower Yoga introduces mindfulness of breath to adults and students early on in our classes. As part of our opening routine, we ask participants to bring one hand to their chest and one hand to their belly to support their awareness of the breath as it moves through the body. We get students into the habit of bringing awareness to their breath whenever someone says something thought provoking, when energy is lacking or abundant, if students seem confused, or if challenging conversations arise in class. We find that inserting this kind of pause supports everyone’s ability to respond to a situation more skillfully.
In addition, because we have the ability to manipulate our breath, the breath can be a great tool to explore mindfulness. We can explore how changing our breath or synching it to movement impacts our experience. We can also learn from our breath by gaining familiarity with how our breath changes in response to different situations or stimuli. Because changing how we breathe can change how we feel, the breath can be a playground for mindfulness. That’s why Little Flower Yoga offers students different breath experiences and asks students to check in and notice how the breath is impacting them. Connecting with the breath is a helpful way to interject a sense of experimentation and curiosity, and it also helps students embody the breath experience rather than just think about their breath. Zinn encourages ”becoming aware of the breath by feeling the sensations associated with it, and by attending to the changing qualities of those breath sensations” (emphasis in original).
It’s important to note that we avoid telling children how a breath will impact them; we simply suggest that a breath practice might change how they feel. We encourage students to report back to the group or a partner so that their experience, whatever it is, can be validated. We don’t tell students that mindfulness of breath will calm them down, because for some children it might have the opposite effect. What we’re more interested in is bringing awareness to whatever shows up. The hope is that once they’ve experienced a certain way of breathing (through their mouth or nose, with a longer or shorter inhalation or exhalation, or by synching movement to the breath), they will gain more insight into what their breath is communicating. Once students have that awareness, they can decide how to proceed and perhaps even use their breath to help support themselves.
For more mindfulness for children and a breathing practice, check out these resources from The New York Times.
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ABOUT ARGOS GONZÁLEZ:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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