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Top 10 Take Aways from the Contemplative Teaching and Learning Symposium at Garrison Institute

Friday, December 07, 2012

Heading back from the weekend spent at the Garrison Institute’s symposium “The art and science of contemplative teaching and learning: exploring ways of knowing”, filled with information, energy and contemplation, we couldn’t help but feel the profound sense of validation and encouragement in the work that we do bringing yoga and mindfulness to the classrooms.

The amazing group of scientists, researchers, authors, educators and others presenting and present at the symposium created the atmosphere of ‘being seen’, supported and reassured that secular, developmentally appropriate and proven contemplative practices shared in school settings are bound to make a difference in the minds and hearts of children and those who support them.

Although it is impossible to provide an all-encompassing overview of the ideas shared during the weekend’s gathering, we noted some recurring themes that substantiate our mission and efforts and also aid in demystifying the field of contemplative education, or as Garrison Institute titled it, Contemplative Teaching and Learning (CTL).

1. Take care of yourself.
On the path to sharing life-changing contemplative ways of learning with others, it is important not to let your personal practice become non-existent or weakened. As obvious as this is, the pace of the modern world often absorbs our best intentions in the name of service. This is bound to backfire, though. Do take time for yourself to connect with your inner self, nourish your body and soul so that you can more authentically share with and model for others.

2. Invite.
Offer the children, colleagues, parents or anyone else around you a non-intrusive way to join you in your own contemplative practice. Perhaps it's a yoga class before the start of a school day, a lunch-time meditation, mindful eating or walking, engaging in arts or reflective journaling at the end of the workday, or other ways to engage and monitor the inner world. The simple act of inviting someone may be life-changing: your open heart and hand may lead to someone’s mind to open to transformation, thus gradually changing the fabric of the school, and ultimately society. Importantly, such hands-on experience helps to lift the veil of unknown and perceived esoteric at times and demystifies contemplative practices for those whom it may be unfamiliar.

3. Share ideas.
Engaging in conversations with like-minded people and colleagues, attending conferences, reading relevant literature and being an integral part of the overall discourse and dialogue in the field of contemplative teaching and learning is necessary and quite rewarding. This was felt on the deepest levels during the Garrison Institute’s event: the atmosphere educed collaboration, not competition, among the contemplative education programs (just to note, representatives from Yoga 4 Classrooms, Niroga Institute, Inner Resilience, Bent On Learning, CARE for Teachers, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health and others were present among the attendees). A powerful yet simple idea of interconnectedness can be described by what Dan Siegel dubbed the “MWE” (ME + WE). The move to integrate the identities, acknowledge the fact that we are all profoundly interconnected and let go the delusion that we are separate was evident during this symposium. Healthy integration while honoring the differences – this motto sums this idea up, and can be applied to all complex systems, from individuals, to organizations, to countries.

4. Go slow to get there faster.
The idea of taking “time in”, calming the racing mind, allowing time for mindfulness and reflection, thus creating the coherence and harmony in order to see the world and the self clearly, is at the core of the contemplative mind. According to neuroscientists, our brain must slow down to differentiate before integrating and getting ready for action. We'll accomplish more by taking our time, rather than forcing or racing to some imaginary 'finish line.'

5. The classroom can be a sacred space.
Many programs similar to our own Yoga 4 Classrooms share the mission of creating a peaceful, calm and trustworthy classroom. Teachers often create a “peace corner” or “quiet place” in their classrooms to encourage “time in”.  Silence can give us a sense of protection, and that physical space in the corner where a child can come for calm and peace can help him embody this peace in their minds and hearts. This can help prevent the new emotion term called “overwhelmedness” from becoming the default state of mind.

6. Don’t hesitate to take action.
A wonderful point made during the symposium encompasses this idea: the majority of the wonderful things happening in classrooms right now has never been and will never be scientifically validated. If we apply the logic of always needing scientific evidence to take action in the classroom, then saying “Good Morning!” to our students each day must have an evidence-based foundation before we can believe in its positive effect!  Silly, right? Anecdotal evidence, centuries of tradition, personal subjective experience and yes, the scientific research as well, -  all are important when considering integrating new techniques in schools. We wrote about the importance of research on the effects of yoga for school children, however there is no need to wait for years before all the research is completed to start improving the classroom climate now!

7. Start small, keep it simple.
Doing “balloon breathing” is one of the simplest, most beneficial ways to promote mindful awareness, providing a great option for someone just starting out to share yoga and mindfulness practices in the educational setting. Let’s lose our attachment to needing to change the world overnight. (See #4 above)

8. Give them the nut, not just the shell.
While encouraging the action and simple steps on this path to transform schools with contemplative techniques, we need to remember the depth and the breadth of these practices. Simple doesn’t mean superficial, hollow or mechanistic. A beautiful South African greeting used a lot during the symposium: “ I see you” – “ I am here” allows children and school staff members to “be seen” and to learn “ to see”. This is a holistic approach in action, to be able “to feel felt by” your teacher. And this is argued to be the most important moment in the contemplative education – the moment of being SEEN. No reductionist approach can create these moments, and we must remember that the practices and strategies we utilize are only the vehicles that carry these underlying ideas.

9. Bridge sacred and science.
The renowned scientists presenting at the symposium, Dan Siegel, Mark Greenberg, Tobin Hart, Linda Lantieri and others, like Adele Diamond, Patricia Jennings, Jennifer Frank showed that contemplative education has been receiving considerable academic attention and validation. The accounts from the fields of neurobiology, developmental psychology, health science, cognitive social neuroscience all contribute to the scientific study of yoga, mindfulness, empathy training, contemplative art, music and writing, among others. Yet the roots of these practices are very deep in various spiritual and mythological traditions. We have the ability to witness the beautiful architecture bridging the sacred and the science.

10. Disciplinary crossover is key to success.
“Integration is a fruit salad, not a smoothie”, noted Dan Siegel during his keynote talk. The academic disciplines, classroom pedagogies and various teaching and learning approaches addressing the whole person through social-emotional learning, emotion regulation, mind-body alignment, mindfulness, attention training - all have common grounds. Being aware of the commonalities, translating the various languages used by these disciplines, and creating ways to integrate them is important for bringing the mission forward.

Overall, the symposium promoted secular and accessible presentation of mindfulness, yoga and similar contemplative practices, with an emphasis on compassion, reflection time and stress reduction. Bringing these essential life skills to as many young people as possible has always been our goal and we were delighted to partake in sharing this vision with so many others. Using Dan Siegel’s words, we believe that “paying attention to your intention” is important to stay focused on this vision. While there are several approaches to cultivating the healthy inner world and fruitful relationships with the outer world, we feel empowered as we continue our work under the umbrella term “contemplative education”.


Lisa Flynn, E-RYT, RYT 500, RCYT, is the Founder and Director of ChildLight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms, and is author of the Yoga 4 Classrooms Card Deck.and Yoga for Children, to be published Spring, 2013 by Adams Media, an F+W Media Company.

Marina Ebert, MA serves as Director of Research and Relationship Development for Yoga 4 Classrooms. She also is a research assistant at Khalsa Yoga Research Lab at Brigham and Women's Hospital/ Harvard Medical School. 

You can also view the videos from the 2011 inaugural symposium, “Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative Teaching and Learning”,  which brought together teachers, principals, researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists, health professionals, professors, graduate students, non-profit organizations and others. The 2012 videos will be available soon. 

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