I recently came across a Letter to the Editor of Professionally Speaking, the publication of the Ontario College of Teachers. One of their readers and college members had responded to an article advocating for the practice of yoga in schools. I wanted to share their perspective with you, as it is one that I had never considered before:
“As a Catholic teacher, I believe that my job is not only teaching the curriculum, but also teaching the Catholic faith and integrating it into various subjects. Since yoga has roots in Hinduism, I would not feel comfortable practicing it or teaching it to my students” (Professionally Speaking, December 2019).
This perspective is a reminder of our inevitability to overlook the cultural implications of subjects discussed in our classroom – not because we are insensitive, but simply because we are limited in our capacity to interpret these subjects from a multitude of perspectives. As educators, we must continually construct our classrooms as spaces that reflect not just our own personal values, but the values of our students, our staff, and our community as a whole.
I also wanted to share this perspective because it pertains to the topic I’ll be exploring in today’s blog post, which is one that may seem intertwined with philosophical and spiritual beliefs. But rather than exploring meditation’s relationship to spirituality and religion, I’d like to focus instead on the science of meditation, and the measurable research in support of the mental and physical benefits. This post will also explore some of the barriers that may prevent teachers from utilizing meditation as a tool in their classroom, along with considerations for the safety and well-being of your students.
Meditation Can Coexist with All Religious, Spiritual, or Secular Beliefs
In order to dive deep into this topic, it may help to define some of the language I’ll be using. When I speak of meditation in the context of schools, I am referring to focused-attention exercises; these exercises include focusing on breathing, on sensations within the body, on spatial awareness, on tangible and abstract objects, and on our thoughts. In this particular blog post, I will not be referring to styles of meditation that incorporate chanting, chakras, or visualizations of deities or gods. I do not wish to discredit these practices, as they are fundamental in exploring the history of meditation, along with its value in Hinduism and New Age beliefs. Instead, I hope to discuss meditation as a practice that explores an individual’s relationship with their own self. Meditation is an extremely personal experience; with proper guidance, it is a practice that can support the cultural identities of all students, and explore the unique thoughts and beliefs that already exist within them.
Meditation Promotes Mental Health
Medical science supports the practice of meditation to improve brain function. Research conducted at UCLA concludes that a long-term meditation practice correlates with more “folds” within the cortex of the brain. This process is known as gyrification, and is believed to support brain function and performance.
Studies conducted at Harvard Medical School also examined the relationship between meditation and brain density. Doctor Sara Lazar concluded that meditation increased the thickness of the cerebral cortex by noting higher levels of grey matter density in the brains of participants with a regular meditation practice. The cerebral cortex of the brain is responsible for complex cognitive behavior, and has implications for our students’ personality expression, decision making, and social-emotional behavior.
In a separate study, Doctor Lazar also noted the difference in the density of the hippocampus of participants who began a meditation practice during the duration of the experiment. An increase in the density of the hippocampus is beneficial for learning, working memory, and emotional regulation; this can be especially helpful for students with depression and trauma, which correlate with a decrease in density of the hippocampus.
Peer-reviewed research has also identified the relationship between meditation and changes in the temporoparietal junction, an area of the brain responsible for the development of perspective, empathy, and compassion.
Meditation can also help with pain management. Research published in The Journal of Neuroscienceshares the impact of meditation and mindfulness on pain-relief. Through the use of focused breathwork, along with awareness and labeling of physical sensations and associated thoughts, meditation has been deemed an effective alternative to prescription medication for pain management.
Meditation is a Catalyst for Learning
The Institute for Psychological Research determined that meditation increases divergent thinking, which promotes creativity and abstract conceptualization. Additionally, focused-attention meditation has been proven to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional regulation and problem-solving skills. With this medical science in mind, it is clear to see how meditation can support student achievement in academic subjects such as mathematics, science, language, music, and creative arts. From a holistic perspective, the impact of meditation on social-emotional learning is more reason to add these practices to your school’s curriculum. You might even be familiar with visualization techniques utilized by exceptional athletes, like American rock-climber Alex Honnold and Olympic champion Michael Phelps – physical education teachers may even wish to build meditation into their warm-up routines in gym class!
Meditation is Highly Accessible
You don’t need to be a specialist to bring meditation into the classroom, nor do you require the use of expensive equipment, specialized props, or trained professionals. There are several free tools available for teachers who wish to meditate at school. Here are a list of my favorite:
YouTube: If you have steady internet access and a set of speakers, you can access one of the many guided meditation videos on YouTube. I particularly enjoy Goodful because they offer a variety of high-quality options that are the perfect duration for my students.
Streaming Platforms: If your internet access is not always reliable, another option is to pre-download a guided meditation from Spotify or Apple Music; both platforms treat this practice almost as if it were a genre of music, offering playlists and other organizational features to easily locate the perfect audio recording for your class.
Apps: There are several free meditation apps that can help you customize your practice. I like using Insight Timer, and especially enjoy their massive free library and option to adjust the duration of your guided practice.
Mondays Made Easy offers a FREE Body-Scan Visualization resource. This resource includes a Mindful Meditation script that you can read to your students, along with an audio recording of the script being read aloud. Access this resource via Mondays Made Easy’s Free Resource Library.
Important Considerations for Student Safety and Well-Being
Like any aspect of a lesson, meditation requires preparation. Be sure to pre-screen the meditation recordings you use in class, much like you would a movie or magazine article. Pre-screening meditations can help you identify whether or not these recordings are intended for classroom use, or for the use of spiritual and religious practices. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that there are no advertisements, background noise, or other distractions that might disrupt the experience for your students.
Most importantly, pre-screening your meditations is an important factor for upholding a trauma-informed practice: you’ll want to ensure that your guided meditation does not explore painful memories or bodily experiences that would not be suitable for your students. While it can be helpful for students with trauma to explore these uncomfortable sensations in a safe environment, they are most effective when practiced with a trained professional.
Your students may ask to turn the lights off during meditation. While it can be desirable to recreate a tranquil space, it may not be the safest option for your students. I try to stick to natural light during my meditations, but refrain from complete darkness in order to keep my students’ best interests in mind.
And while many of us would likely benefit from a guided meditation during our school day, I recommend only participating with your students if you can still safely hold space for them. If you have your eyes closed or your attention turned inward, be sure to have another adult in the room to supervise your students. With that said, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the research presented in this blog post applies not only to our students, but to us as teachers as well. I do hope that you find time to treat yourself to your own meditation practice – amongst the many professions that could benefit from meditation and mindfulness, teaching is certainly one of them.
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