January 28, 2020
By Cory Phare
Let’s try something: before reading any further, close your eyes for 12 seconds. Don’t cheat!
What did you notice? Any special noises or sensations?
What about your breathing Nothing? If you are not in contact with your breath, you may miss the opportunity to improve your state of mind and GPA.
Breathing is a critical component of mindfulness. This is any exercise one can do to improve one’s state of mind or awareness, said Chris Jennings, chairman of the Department of Journalism and Media Production at Metropolitan State University in Denver.
“Usually we humans breathe just enough to survive. We never don’t – but are we breathing enough? I don’t think so, ”said Jennings, who also teaches yoga to address traumatized stress in US military veterans.
Mindfulness is increasingly being integrated into the classrooms of an interdisciplinary cadre of educators. The practice is proving effective in helping students of all levels cope with the pressures of modern life and preparing them for academic success.
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“The basic idea of mindfulness is to notice what is happening in a non-judgmental and non-reactive way,” said Kristy Lyons, associate professor of psychological sciences at MSU Denver who studies mindfulness and metacognition in children and adolescents. “It takes a lifetime to master, but almost anyone can benefit from just a few minutes of guided training.”
There are two physiological effects of mindfulness, she said. First, parts of the brain that process emotional responses show decreased activation of stressors. Second, it improves the functioning of our prefrontal cortex – the part that deals with decision-making and self-control.
“We’re basically not that upset about things that are bothering us, and when something bothers us we can control our emotional actions,” said Lyons. “It’s dual action.”
Balance anytime anywhere
These physiological effects may be due to what Harvard University doctor Herbert Benson, in 1975, called the “relaxation response.” The phenomenon is essentially a way to short-circuit our fight or flight response and bring the body back to a sense of homeostasis Michelle Tollefson, a medical doctor and associate professor in the Department of Health Professions at MSU Denver, one of the ten divisions recently graduated from the university established Health Institute.
Realizing that the effects on college students could be significant, Tollefson began studying the negative effects of the stress response of our body’s sympathetic nervous system and how the balance restored by its parasympathetic counterpart through techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and breathing work . It is directly related to stress management, described by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, of which Tollefson currently serves as secretary, and studied by students on the MSU Denver’s undergraduate degree in Lifestyle Medicine, the first in the country.
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These benefits can be accessed anytime, anywhere, she said.
“When I saw that the relaxation response could easily be induced, I decided it would be wise to share this information – and exercises – with my students,” said Tollefson, a former visiting faculty member at Harvard’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine.
This included additional loan assignments that included mindful stress reduction practice in 14 courses. Positive self-reported results on students’ stress-related coping skills are presented in results published below.
“When you develop a sense of peace and presence, individuals can become more involved in the classroom – and beyond, throughout their lives,” she said. “I wanted to give students the opportunity to try different techniques that are evidence-based and deeply rooted in science.”
“Stress responses have been useful when, for example, you are being chased by a tiger, but we face low-level chronic stress every day. Things like ‘How do I pay my bills?'” Said Michelle Tollefson. One of the benefits of mindfulness that she noticed is its ability to be practiced almost anywhere – like Savannah Bustos does on a rooftop in front of the Denver skyline. Photo by Alyson McClaran
Learning outcomes for education
Mindful pedagogy extends beyond the college classroom as well, said Ingrid Carter, associate professor of basic education and literacy. Elementary, middle and high school students can all benefit from including the practice in their daily schedule – and this helps them achieve the comprehensive standards of social and emotional well-being set by the state.
Carter leads her elementary school students through 5 minutes of exercise – be it with a guided visualization, a music-based technique or an exercise in which the students eat apple slices or raisins while paying attention to the taste sensation.
“Conflict mediation and self-regulation are part of what students at the Colorado Department of Education must do,” she said.
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Kacey Mellentine, who took Carter’s class in elementary science and health education, said she intends to use a similar practice when running a classroom.
“Students could come back from break and complain about someone who wouldn’t play Foursquare with them,” said the elementary school student. “If you focus on that, you can’t put your best foot forward in the classroom. It’s easy to get distracted thinking about something that is about to happen or what has just been done.”
Centering the mind counteracts this, she has learned. And contrary to some impressions, the goal is not not to think.
“It’s not about switching off completely – it’s about focusing and only being present with what you’re doing,” Carter said.
That brings us back to your breath.
When Jennings takes a few minutes early in his class to guide students through mindfulness practices, he often discusses the concept of “coherent breath,” a concentrated and paused inhalation for 6 seconds followed by an exhalation for 6 seconds.
“The break is significant,” he said. “Think of a basketball player taking a free throw: you take deep breaths to help focus and gain perspective. It is also important and helpful for a student to take a few seconds to re-center when they sit down to write an assignment. “
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One exercise he recommends is a three-point breath focus that you can practice together with.
First, make yourself aware that you are actively breathing, sucking in and pushing air out. Next, imagine the way your breath goes into your lungs and focus on how it feels – the temperatures you inhale and exhale, the sensation of movement throughout your body, and how your chest rises and falls. Finally, and the hardest part, Jennings said, is listening to your breath, turning on your ears, and challenging them to hear through the sounds of the world.
It’s harmless enough to be practiced in a classroom (or boardroom), but a gentle nudge that can remind us of the presence of the present.
“You don’t breathe the air of yesterday or tomorrow,” said Jennings. “It’s right in front of you, right now.”