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June 1, 2006
Vol. 63
No. 9

Lessons from Yoga

Concepts from yoga can put educators back into touch with why they teach.

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As a former high school English teacher and current teacher educator specializing in literacy, I see teaching analogies everywhere. Although No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, and "teacher-proof" curriculums might lead the general public to believe that teaching is mechanical, I continually search in the world around me for new insights into the nature of teaching and learning.
I have found yoga in particular to be a powerful analogy for the practice of teaching. In addition to the physical, mental, and even spiritual benefits that yoga practice yields, I am convinced that concepts from yoga may help educators improve their teaching practice.
Not that it happened instantly for me. When a teacher friend first invited me to join her in a yoga class, I agreed only reluctantly. Although I had heard that yoga relieved stress and promoted relaxation, I remained skeptical of what I perceived to be a slow and painless sport. After several weeks of "gentle" yoga, however, my reluctance gave way to a rising curiosity: I noticed that in each class of 15–20 participants, at least half were teachers.
In fact, yoga workshops for teachers are popping up in school districts all over the United States. A program called Yoga Ed has led hundreds of California teachers through a yoga training program that integrates yoga into public school curriculum. The effects appear to benefit teachers and students alike. Mary Lewis, Los Angeles Unified School District's intern program director, found that when 60 intern teachers participated in the Tools for Teachers yoga training program, they became more relaxed both inside and outside the classroom (Shin, 2004).
But yoga's benefits go beyond relaxation. It is my conviction that the pedagogy of yoga, not merely the practice of it, speaks to the core of what teachers need to be truly effective. Beyond toning the body, yoga conditions the mind to think about teaching and learning through a powerful pedagogical paradigm. Here's how looking at instruction through the yogic lens can put us in touch with why we teach.

Set Your Intention

Although there are many different styles of yoga, sessions typically begin with an awareness of the breath and the present moment. The first mental task is to "set your intention," or deliberately reflect on what you want to get out of your practice. It might mean focusing on a feeling, an attitude, or an ability, and then revisiting it throughout the practice.
This notion of intention is imperative for teachers, who can too easily get swept up in the lightning-fast pace of daily demands. We need to take roll, note absences, assign tardies, answer questions, distribute materials, state directions, make announcements, and "cover" the content standards. These are crucial tasks, yet they often bury what is most important: focusing on the learner and the learning.
Before delivering instruction, we need to take the time to focus on some key questions: Why am I here? What do I want to accomplish in this hour? On this day? It's important that we honor our intentions, even if we need to modify the lesson to do so.

Personalize the Practice

In yoga, each pose offers variations for individuals of all abilities. There may be 30 yoga students who practice 30 variations of the same pose, yet the essence of the posture remains the same. Unlike many classrooms, yoga assumes that we are all different in our developmental levels and provides multiple entry points.
Educators know that students differ in background, culture, language, prior knowledge, attitude, and ability. Our real challenge lies in overcoming barriers that repress our best instincts to address students' individual needs. Curricular constraints, time issues, large class sizes, and budgetary woes all contribute to an impending sense of education helplessness. Under this burdensome weight, we are sometimes too ready to revert to traditional one-size-fits-all approaches.
Standards-based instruction and high-stakes testing need not discourage an individualized approach to instruction, however. We can "accept, embrace, and plan for the fact that learners . . . bring the essential differences that make them individuals" and provide different avenues for student learning (Tomlinson, 2000) while still delivering the required curriculum. Personalizing our practice—by tailoring curriculum content, learning processes, and product requirements to individual learners—demonstrates respect for students' differences and is a realistic, honorable goal for educators.

Notice What You Notice

"Notice what you notice" is an expression that yoga instructors employ to remind participants to be in a state of continual awareness. Throughout their yoga practice, students are encouraged to observe the effects that each pose has on their body and mind and to modify their poses with props if they feel tension or strain. Although the ultimate goal is to be able to perform the task unaided, an ongoing awareness of our state of being, without judgment or expectation, is a powerful tool that allows for growth.
Teachers can cultivate a similar awareness in students by providing instructional scaffolds. Education scaffolding allows teachers to extend their students' understanding through supported experiences—instructional strategies or activities, for example. Like yoga props, temporary scaffolds enable students to learn and demonstrate skills and knowledge at a level beyond their current capabilities and, eventually, to become autonomous learners. We want our students to "notice what they notice" about their own learning and, as self-regulated learners, be able to make adjustments accordingly.

Integrate the Experience and Feel the Effects

At the end of every yoga session comes the final resting pose, Savasana. Lying on the back with hands and feet relaxed, participants are able to feel the effects of their practice and enjoy their experience on a deeper level. Although yoga practitioners are encouraged to feel the effects of each pose throughout the practice, it is only at the end of the session that they can integrate and absorb the experience as a whole. This restful, meditative time is powerfully rejuvenating.
We all know that reflective practitioners make good teachers, but how many of us manage to make the time, each day, to deliberately reflect about our practice? Perhaps a "teaching Savasana" could help. We don't need to lie on our backs, but we do need to make time to purposefully reflect on our teaching; it's the only way to make appropriate adjustments to our instruction. Reflection not only better informs our teaching but also reinvigorates us. Yoga reminds us that time taken out of our day to reflect is time well spent.

When the Lotus Flower Blooms

Yoga reminds teachers about important but easily overlooked aspects of teaching. As teachers, we must always remember to act deliberately, honor the individual, and remain continually aware and reflective.
The image of a lotus flower, highly symbolic for Buddhists, further illustrates this point. The lotus is the only flower that reveals a fully developed fruit when its petals unfold. Blossoming radiantly in a muddy swamp, the flower "illustrates the attainment of a pure and empowered state of life in the midst of the sometimes degrading realities of human society" (McNeill, 2001). The same is true for teachers. Only when we teach with intention will the fruit within the lotus flower be revealed.

McNeill, D. (2001, May 18). Back to basics: The lotus flower. World Tribune. Available: www.sgi-usa.org/publications/world_tribune/b2b/thelotusflower.htm

Shin, L. (2004). Yoga goes to school. LA Yoga, 3(4). Available: www.layogamagazine.com/issue12/feature/feature.htm

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Reconcilable differences? Standards-based teaching and differentiation. Educational Leadership, 58(1), 6–11.

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