Tags: Classroom Teacher | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning | Well-being

Many people have discovered for themselves the benefits of meditation and relaxation as a way of releasing stress and tension. More and more people are using short meditations as a way of getting pupils into a good state for learning. If you haven’t tried it yet, the following are simple techniques, which can be done at pretty much any age. You might like to try them yourself before you start using them with pupils so that you feel how quickly or slowly you might want to speak … and then practise leading each meditation in a calm, confident voice.

If you want to ‘sell’ these techniques to pupils, then meditation is simply about relaxing the mind. It counteracts stress, increases concentration and generally makes you feel good. It’s different from the sort of ‘relaxation’ that comes from slumping in front of the telly, and different from falling asleep, and can lead in a very short space of time to a pleasant feeling of relaxed alertness. The more you do it, the easier it is to do and the better you feel. And once you’re in the habit of doing it, it can come in very handy at times when you might be feeling extra stress – just before an exam, for example!

Meditation is related to visualisation and positive thinking, but it is different. Experiment with some of the following examples. The aim is simply to relax the mind. Do not ‘try’ to achieve any particular state, just relax and do the ‘activities’. Typically, you’ll achieve a different state almost every time – welcome them all. You’ll find that some activities can flow on one from another if you have more time, or that you can combine some of them into one activity. Initially though, do them individually and notice how you feel in your mind and body. There are no rules about how often you do it. Little and often can be just as effective as 30 minutes morning and evening. It can be a great way of starting the day, or a lesson.

You can begin with whichever one most attracts you, but if you follow the sequence in which they are written, it will lead you gently into the practice and guide you naturally through many of the experiences and questions which typically arise as you continue with meditation.

Each of the initial activities is written as a script – these are the words you read aloud to guide pupils. If necessary, repeat information from a previous activity.

• Relax from top to toe

Sit well, by sitting up with a straight spine and both feet on the floor, legs slightly apart and hands resting on your lap. Feel your head balanced on the top of your spine. Move it gently forwards and backwards and from side to side until it is upright. Make sure your chin is level with the floor. Close your eyes (or half close your eyes) if that feels comfortable. (It’s fine if some people prefer to keep their eyes open.)

Take a deep breath in through your nose, and as you breathe out (again through your nose) relax from the top of your head down to your feet – head, face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, chest, back, stomach, backside, thighs, calves, ankles, feet, toes. Continue to breathe normally. Do it twice more. Breathing in through your nose, and relaxing as you breathe out – head, face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, chest, back, stomach, backside, thighs, calves, ankles, feet, toes. And again by yourselves. Breathe in, and relax as you breathe out. … And enjoy the stillness.

Always end a meditation gently, e.g. by rubbing your hands together, taking a deep breath in, covering your eyes with your hands and opening your eyes under your hands as you breathe out. Take your hands down and look around the room.

Always use the same words to start and end a meditation. It will help pupils get into a remembered state more easily.

• Breathe and relax

Sit well. Concentrate on your breathing. Do not breathe in any particular way. Just notice the temperature of the air as it comes in through your nose, and any slight change in its quality as it goes out. We’re just going to do this for two minutes, and then we’ll talk about what you noticed.

[Whatever people notice is fine. If they notice nothing, that’s fine too.]

• Counting breaths

As you ‘breathe and relax’ count your breaths quietly to yourself in your head. Use whatever counting system works for you, e.g. one as you breathe in, two as you breathe out; or one in-out, two in-out. Just for two minutes, so take a deep breath in and start counting.

• Feeling meditation

As you meditate, you may become aware of feelings – how your bottom feels on the chair, the weight of your hands on your lap, the air on your skin, your tummy gurgling – which is a common response to meditation. So use it as part of the meditation.

Sit well. Take a deep breath and relax. And begin to notice everything you can feel physically. And as you notice each feeling, just let it go. If you get an itch or you feel uncomfortable in a particular position, wait it out for a moment. Often it will pass. If it doesn’t, then scratch or move, and continue with the meditation.

Notice any feelings of the emotional kind too. Experience them fully. Notice how your body responds physically – where does the feeling originate, how does it affect you? Again, notice and let go. You can do similar meditation noticing all the sounds you can hear. Just notice and let go.

• Notice your mind

Sit well, take a deep breath and relax. Just notice what your mind does. If thoughts come in, notice them and let them go. Don’t try to ‘make’ them go – you have to ‘make’ things happen by ‘doing’ something with your mind, and you’re just letting the mind do its own thing. Watch your thoughts as you would watch the clouds and let them go.

If at first you need a strategy, you can create a mental dustbin and drop unwanted thoughts in it. Or a mental notice board for things you want to remember – just remember to check it before you finish the meditation.

If you want to experience a ‘blank’ mind, try looking at an internal white wall, or pull a mental white screen down in front of your thoughts.

As you try out some of these techniques, tell pupils that on the days they find it difficult to concentrate (each experience will be slightly different, and some days will be easier than others) they can use any of the techniques they already know to help them. You might gradually like to lengthen the period of meditation too – you can add 30 seconds at a time. Sometimes go back to having a very short meditation just to remind people that they can get into a good state very quickly.

You have now had several experiences of meditation and have developed strategies for dealing with the sorts of distractions that occur: being aware of thoughts, sounds and feelings. You are in a much stronger position than people who try (and often fail) to meditate because they think they have to sit down and think of nothing for a long time. Pupils are hopefully enjoying the experience and noticing its benefits, and some may even be using the techniques themselves when they want to get in a good state for learning.

You might point out again that this state of relaxed alertness is the best state for learning something new, as well as for dealing with things they might previously have found stressful. Also, research has shown that the best state for retrieving information (e.g. in an exam) is the same state in which it was learnt, so if pupils develop the habit of learning new things in this relaxed state, then all they need to do at the beginning of an exam is take a deep breath and relax and access one of these past good states, and they get a double benefit:

  1. They are in the state in which they learnt, so it will be easier to retrieve information
  2. They will definitely be in a better frame of mind for taking the exam.

Once you’ve done a few of the above activities over a period of more than a week, notice any effect on your moods, your concentration, your sleep, your relationships. And congratulations – you’re a meditator. The rest is just experience.

Susan Norman is Co-Director (with Hugh L’Estrange) of SEAL (Society for Effective Affective Learning). As well as being an experienced teacher and trainer, Susan is also a qualified yoga teacher. She has written numerous books on learning, including In Your Hands – NLP for teaching and learning (with Jane Revell), Transforming Learning – Introducing SEAL Approaches, and Stepping Stones – first lessons in Accelerated Learning for use with children aged 7-11 (with Eva Hoffman) – all published by Saffire Press.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2005.

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