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Just Keep Breathing: A Perspective on Mindfulness and Meditation from the Keys Head of School

I am a meditator. I meditate twice daily – an essential ritual I use to fuel my day. My family has come to joke that if they can’t find me, “Mommie is probably meditating somewhere.” When my boys were little, they wanted a piece of the meditation action. They would ask me to meditate in their room while they were lying in their bunks preparing to go to bed. I often wondered what drew them to my sitting practice. Perhaps they were connecting with the stillness I feel when I’m consciously breathing. Perhaps they appreciated the slowing of our breaths or the rising and falling of their hands placed over their heart and stomach when breathing with me. Whatever the

experienced, they were joining my practice and internalizing parts of it before they would fall off to sleep. I’m grateful they learned there are conscious ways to breathe.

My boys continued to learn breathing techniques at home and in school as they were growing up, and as a result they have always reminded me to breathe. I remember like it was yesterday when my now 7th-grader was in kindergarten, and he calmly stated from behind me in his car seat: “Mommie, I think you should use your breathing tools.” I had been frantically racing through the back streets of Berkeley, cursing under my breath, clenching the steering wheel, snapping at him, while attempting to get him to his soccer match on time. My efforts were in vain, and we arrived late. I was harried, impatient, having fallen prey to my increasingly hurried world. It was not one of my finer parenting moments.

Yet I remember Alex’s words grabbing me, and how I immediately returned to focusing on my breath to shift my emotional state. “Thank you, Alex,” I calmly replied, “for your reminder.”  I remember pulling over, and we each put one hand on our tummies and the other on our hearts and together breathed deeply five times. From the mouth of my babe, I was brought back to center, to what’s most important—regulating my emotions so I’m present and connected to others, my environment, and myself. The hustle and bustle of working parenthood unnerved me then and it still does at times (like right now with my partner traveling for the week on business). However, I’m awed at the fact that my then five-year-old and my now 7th grader calls forth breathing strategies, and he’s still reminding me to use mine.

This summer our faculty began reading the book Onward, by educator and coach Elena Aguilar. Onward’s premise is to cultivate emotional resilience in educators so that teachers have strategies to bring their best selves into the classroom and to their students. Each chapter presents a monthly topic of study exploring techniques to build emotional resilience. Onward’s October topic is entitled “Be Here Now,” focusing on mindfulness and meditation. Several times this month faculty have practiced mindfulness together. It’s been a welcome community builder as well as a stress reducer and resilience enhancer. On Early Dismissal Day last week almost every employee spent time talking about mindfulness and taking a meta moment. We learned, shared, and practiced strategies to stay in the moment. Why? Because we know that being present in the moment impacts the quality of our lives and those of our students’.

Truth be told, I watch Keys faculty teach students breathing techniques all the time, and I’m grateful our students have those breathing tools at their fingertips. Earlier in the year at one of the Lower School’s Monday Morning Gatherings, I learned, along with the students, how to take “Balloon Breaths.” Ms. Diamond showed us how to put our hands on our heads, followed by five short inhales. With each inhale, we raised our arms up, lifting them a bit higher with each breath. After the fifth breath, we exhaled slowly lowering our arms to the side. While participating in the activity, I watched the entire Lower School student body practice this technique in unison while focusing on their breath. A real treat to behold! In a kindergarten class I visited recently, a valued classmate was restless during circle time and struggled to focus. One of our teachers gently lead the student to the side, stood opposite the student, and used the “Breathing Arms Practice” to help the student settle. The student and teacher took three deeps breaths, and with each inhale the student and teacher raised their arms over their heads. With each exhale, they lowered their arms slowly. After the third exhale, the student was able to rejoin his classmates and sit calmly in the circle. (For more breathing strategies check out the I Can Calm book.)

Middle School is a time to take deep breaths, and like our K through 4th-graders, our 5th- through 8th-graders are learning breathing strategies, which requires a different developmental approach, of course. Students learn a variety of strategies in Self Science class. They practice everything from 10 minutes of mindfulness, to the body scan technique, to loving kindness and gratitude practices, to mindful eating, to name a few. They gain exposure to apps like OAK, which offers meditations and breathing exercises for increased focus and calm. Each of these practices helps students become more mindful and more able to pause before speaking or acting. These self-regulation practices help students “choose” their actions during a stage when, developmentally, impulsivity can override sound judgment. Taking a breath helps middle schoolers choose to be who they want to be.

Self-regulation through breath is a powerful life skill and an essential one. Research abounds about how it improves overall physical and emotional health and well-being. I wish I had been introduced to that skill as early as kindergarten and had nine years to practice the techniques. I’m profoundly grateful my sons and Keys students are developing these skills, so they are better able to navigate their inner and outer world.

I hope you find a moment today to put your hand on your heart and on your tummy and just breathe, and let me know when I can join you.

Just keep breathing. Just keep breathing.

 

Heather Rogers, Head of Keys School

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