Editor's note: This week our guest blogger is Hannah Gould M.Ed, RYT, who coordinates the therapeutic yoga program at NESCA. (Please read her full bio below.)
Mind-body practices like yoga are ideal for developing emotional regulation skills because to make sense of emotions, both the mind and the body must be involved. Emotions are interpreted and labeled by the mind, but they are experienced through the body. A racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, a tightly clenched jaw and even an attack of the giggles are all physical phenomena that we learn to associate with various emotional states.
Developing emotional regulation skills is a primary goal for most of my young yoga students. Regulating emotions is a critical component of executive functioning. Executive functioning covers the full range of skills required for efficient completion of tasks, including both self-regulation skills (managing attention, emotion and arousal) and meta-cognitive skills (planning, organizing, sequencing and flexibility of thinking). Emotional regulation refers to the ability to understand and respond appropriately to one’s own emotional experience. Along with the other self-regulation skills, emotional regulation provides the foundation on which the meta-cognitive skills can be built.
Weathering the Emotional Storm
I think of emotions as being like the weather. They shift and change constantly and sometimes unpredictably. Our emotional state creates a backdrop for all of our experiences and activities, powerfully affecting how we perceive situations and how skillfully we are able to respond to demands. We each have our own emotional climate. Personally mine feels a lot like Southern California; generally pleasant and mild with occasional floods or periods of drought. Many of my students, however, seem to have an emotional climate more like my home state of Massachusetts where it might be warm and sunny one day and freezing with snow flurries the next.
Classroom teachers have expressed to me that they are perplexed and sometimes frustrated by the variability of some students’ academic performance and behavior from one day or moment to the next. I imagine this kind of variability must be frustrating for the student as well! But from the perspective of a yoga teacher, I do not find this perplexing at all. It may simply indicate a shift in the student’s “emotional weather.”
Within our personal emotional climate, the weather can be affected by many external and internal factors. Sensory experiences, hunger, fatigue, excitement and anxiety are just a few of the elements at play. In order to do the important business of learning and socializing, children are constantly asked to draw their attention away from their inner experience. When teachers and parents say “pay attention”, they are asking children to focus on listening to directions, complete an assigned task, or “read the room” for social cues. For many students their internal state is ignored and their “emotional weather” can quietly build in the background until it is unleashed with the force of a hurricane.
Becoming mindful of the variability of our own emotional patterns is an essential part of the practice of yoga. I know that my downward dog or warrior pose is different from one day to the next because I am different. My mood, my energy level, competing demands for my attention and the degree to which I am holding tension in my body are constantly fluctuating.
Beginning yoga students tend to meet these natural fluctuations with mental resistance or physical force. Over time and with practice, the assumptions and judgments that tend to arise quiet down and more mental space is made available for present moment awareness. The body and mind establish an open line of communication and are able to support each other, along with the breath, as an optimally functioning team.
A New Way to Pay Attention
Through yoga and other mindfulness practices, children can learn to “pay attention” in a very different way. Yoga offers tools for building self-regulation skills (such as awareness and control) that are fun, healthy and compelling for children. The balance pose called tree pose is one of my favorite of these tools to work with. To do tree pose, one foot is planted firmly on the ground like a tree trunk. The other foot is lifted off the floor, knee turned out, foot resting on the calf or thigh of the standing leg. The arms may be in a variety of positions that can make the balance easier or more challenging.
Balance poses are captivating for children and adults alike in part because they are so dynamic. When we hold tree pose, we can rarely achieve stillness for more than a brief moment before we begin to sway and need to correct our balance. When new yoga students attempt tree pose, they wobble back and forth like a sapling in a windstorm. As they become more practiced at the pose (and the underlying process of self-monitoring), the wobble subsides and they begin to resemble a deeply rooted tree in a gentle breeze.
The skills practiced in tree pose directly apply to regulating emotions. To hold tree pose, students need to filter out external distractions, tune in to internal sensations, and continually adjust their muscle actions. In any situation children can learn to engage in a similar process; noticing sensations in their bodies, recognizing the physical cues that may signal frustration, overwhelm or exhaustion, and applying appropriate techniques to maintain emotional balance.
Maintaining balance, whether physical or emotional, is both challenging and deeply satisfying. Nothing makes a child feel prouder than getting through a difficult task without the familiar emotional upheavals he may have experienced in the past. At first, this may be a wobbly process indeed. When a child melts down, lashes out or withdraws she is desperately seeking balance like the sapling in the windstorm.
Just like teaching tree pose, supporting children who are learning to regulate their emotions requires patience, encouragement, and sometimes a little hands-on assistance. It is always okay to fall down. Simply get up, take a deep breath and begin again.
For more tips to help students develop emotional regulation skills, click below.
Hannah Gould, M.Ed, RYT is an experienced classroom special educator and yoga teacher. Hannah coordinates the therapeutic yoga program at NESCA, a private pediatric neuropsychology group practice in Newton MA. Hannah has developed a unique visual yoga curriculum and teaching methodology called Yoga Connects based on her years of experience bringing yoga to people with special needs in a variety of settings. Yoga Connects parent-child sessions are offered at NESCA, and professional trainings are available for schools and other organizations. Hannah believes yoga is a natural fit for people with autism and other special needs, and has affirmed this belief by witnessing the incredible focus, boundless joy and inspiring growth of her students.