We caught up with Yoga & Mindfulness Researcher, Writer and Teacher Rina Deshpande from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to ask her thoughts on yoga and mindfulness in schools and for teachers. Check out her interview below:
amaZEN U: Your online bio says that you grew up with a yoga philosophy – can you explain that and how you think it impacted you as a child?
Rina: Yes, I grew up as a first generation American. My parents are from India. Yoga, which in very basic terms means “unity” or “union,” is threaded much throughout my culture. As a child, I didn’t realize it. As an adult, it’s easy for me to see.
When I was very young, my dad used to wake up earlier than the rest of us to make our breakfast and lunch before my mom went to work and my sister and I went to school. Sometimes, when I’d wake up early enough, I’d see him seated quietly in a corner of our house, eyes gently closed and seated cross- legged. I’d listen to the sound of his very regulated, elongated breathing. Unknown to me was that this was, in fact, pranayam (breathing) and meditation. My first year as a NYC public school teacher many years later, I was extremely stressed and exhausted and found myself in my first yoga class. The teacher introduced “ujjayi” breathing, or “ocean breath” which flows by constricting the back of the throat. I was brought back to the practice my father did right away. It was comforting to practice it and hear it again. It felt inherent to me, just that it needed to be reawakened. This is just one example of a multitude of how yoga influenced my upbringing- subtle and more direct. The concept of suryanamaskar (sun salute) to greet the sun and invite positive intention into my day, or being put to bed by my mother who would sing each of my limbs and body parts to sleep – something I learned later is known as “yoga nidra” which induces a relaxation response- are things I have always known, without having known there was a label of yoga.
amaZEN U: Explain your work at Harvard Medical School – the yoga based interventions?
Rina: Yoga and mindfulness practice are become more and more prominent in research today. I have the privilege of co-crafting yoga sequences that integrate both the physical and philosophical components of yoga to study neurological, cognitive, physiological, and emotional changes in practitioners. I work in Dr. Sara Lazar‘s lab, who is a lead researcher in this area whose previous research has actually revealed correlations between mindfulness practice and stress levels as well as brain structure and function.
amaZEN U: Research is showing that there are a lot of positive effects on school kids who are introduced to yoga and mindfulness in the classroom. What specific benefits do you see?
Rina: Research related to yoga and mindfulness practices’ benefits on children ages 3-18 often show promise in the area of stress reduction, emotion-regulation, and self-regulation (a type of “executive function”) for the most part. Being a former NYC public school elementary teacher and assistant professor of practice of teachers at esteemed Relay GSE, I can tell you that supporting our children in drawing awareness to their feelings and managing their behaviors beginning in childhood is HUGE.
Emotion and behavior management an incredibly large part of teaching in the classroom, which isn’t as simple as a vacuum of teaching a child how to add two-digit numbers using partial sums with base-ten blocks – check! It’s supporting a child who might have been held back a year in school who didn’t enjoy working with math cubes and experienced multiple failures in math which sparks a feeling of anxiety in the context of mastering a math problem in a finite period of time that will likely show up on a state test which brings up stress levels…now that, multiplied by 30 children with unique relationships with math in the classroom, is no small task for dedicated teachers. To me, offering children (and teachers) a “mindful’ way of regulating their own emotions and behaviors – as simply as by taking a full, complete breath at the start of a stressful moment – is priceless not just for the immediate moment but priceless for our children as they grow into adults. Stressful moments are a guarantee. Mindfulness and yoga practices are options to help us manage the ups and downs – children and adults alike.
For example, Dr. Lisa Flook at UCLA is a leader in developing mindfulness practices for children as young as pre-K and early elementary school who significantly benefit in regulating behaviors by observing the breath, body, and environment (Flook et al, 2010). Karen Bluth (2015) takes on the noble research of offering the BREATHE program to adolescents, particularly those considered “at-risk” in school, as a possible intervention. You can read more summaries of mindfulness in early childhood and elementary and high school contexts in my articles at Learning & the Brain.
There are a few lofty claims being made about mindfulness in classroom that I definitely recommend consuming with a critical eye. You can read more in my “Mindfulness Myths” articles with Learning & the Brain here. That said, while limited research presently exists to support neural change it’s definitely a growing priority now that psychological research supports its benefits. And in agreement with one of my personal mentors, Dr. Sara Lazar, mindfulness and yoga may be practices that are offered to our students but never forced. The purpose, in my opinion, is to reduce stress and offer stillness to those that are receptive to it, and never a requirement.
amaZEN U: How do you introduce yoga and mindfulness in teachers and leaders and encourage those who may be skeptical to mindfulness practices?
Rina: I’d say the best way to introduce mindfulness and yoga to anyone is to offer it, not require it. Similarly, it’s an instructor’s job to have appropriate training and practice themselves. There are methods of practicing breathing and moving safely that are important to follow, as modifying breath and engaging in movements obviously will have some effect on physiology and sometimes psychologically.
In western society, I notice that introducing basic, accurate research to frame the benefits of yoga or mindfulness practice can be inviting to new practitioners. I also think that reminding others (and reminding myself!) that this practice can often offer immediate benefit, but it also might not calm you or help you center your attention right away. For example, relaxation during “body scan” where you simply focus on a different body part progressively as it is narrated by the instructor may feel grounding and soften your body and mind in the moment, and other times it might feel like your mind wants to roam elsewhere. Like any practice – brushing and flossing your teeth (flossing is key!) – it is not about getting it done once or twice and being done. It’s intended to be practiced for lifelong healthy living and eventually can become more automatic.
amaZEN U: What do you recommend for schools that are interested in starting a mindfulness/yoga practice but may not know where to start?
Rina: I recommend starting with a trusted source of training for teachers and school administrators. There are many available and growing.
I’ve become increasingly appreciative of research by Kristin Neff, who has adapted the self-compassion aspect of traditional mindfulness for research. Her Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program/training is now being used in schools with adolescents and is designed to help cultivate a positive inner voice. Additionally the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA offers facilitator trainings and resources. Mindfulschools.org offers virtual training, and the Sonima Foundation offers health and wellness curriculum for grades K-12. These are good places to start to see if they’re a good fit for your school and intention, but the list of quality programs is certainly growing!
amaZEN U: Anything else you would like to share?
Rina: Of particular interest to me is the trickle-down effect and the importance of stress-regulation and emotion-regulation in our teachers and school leaders before and while they teach mindfulness to children. The best way to teach mindfulness is to practice mindfulness ourselves. 🙂
Thank you so much to Rina Deshpande for sharing her thoughts and insights!
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