By Meghan Lally Keaton
Both yoga and art share the ability to enhance the mind-body connection, and incorporating yoga into the art classroom offers many benefits for students and teachers, particularly students with disabilities. Yoga provides opportunities to move the body, connect with our breath, and settle our thoughts. Art offers an opportunity to explore our creativity, take chances, calm our bodies, and stimulate our brains. Below are some tips and suggestions for how to incorporate these practices into the art classroom and make them accessible to everyone.
1. Yoga is for EVERY BODY. Many of us have the misconception that yoga is for athletic people who wear tight pants and own an expensive yoga mat; this is not the case. Yoga can be done by anyone, regardless of age, flexibility, physical abilities, or experience. It doesn’t have a shape, a particular look, or proper position. At its core, yoga simply means union or connection. It is about connecting with your breath, your mind, and your body. As such, it can be done by anyone. We can help our students (and ourselves) by letting go of what it should look like and focusing on what it might feel like to connect with ourselves. There are several versions or ways of doing yoga including sitting in a chair, standing, sitting on the floor, or lying down, whatever feels best for each individual’s body. It can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths before beginning a project, to moving the body to release energy. Whatever the purpose or the form is, there is an entry point for everyone.
2. Consider your space and how much time you have. Sure, it would be great to begin each day with a nice 30-60 minute yoga session, but we likely don’t have that kind of time in our classrooms. We probably don’t have space to lay out yoga mats either. Instead, consider how we might incorporate breathing breaks throughout the day. Are there moments of stress that happen over and over? These are perfect times for a brain break, some movement, or some breath work.
Here are a few quick techniques that you can work into your day:
- Mindful Breathing: Encourage students to take 3 deep breaths. With each breath, they should feel their stomach expand like a balloon. If they are able to, instruct students to place their hands on their stomach and feel it rise and fall with their breath. You can also instruct students to breathe in and out to a certain count. For instance, breathe in while you count to 3 and breathe out while you count to 3. This not only encourages slowing down and taking long slow breaths, but also helps with counting (especially for our youngest learners.)
- Breathing sticks: Take a bead and thread it onto a chenille stick. Make a loop or knot on each end so the bead stays on the stick. This is a breathing stick. Each child can have his or her own stick. To settle the mind and body, place your thumb and forefinger on the bead; breathe in as you move it from one side of the stick. Breathe out as you reach the end and slide it back. Continue to concentrate on your breath, breathing in and out as you move the bead back and forth. (Another option is to close your eyes as you do so, and concentrate on your sense of touch as you breathe.) If a student has limited mobility, a teacher or aide can assist with moving the bead as they breathe together or moving the stick across the student’s hand as they breathe in and out for a more tactile experience.
- Lion’s Breath: Lion’s breath can help calm or energize us. Breathe in through the nose, and breath out through the mouth making a “ha” sound. As you exhale, open your mouth wide and stick your tongue as far out as possible towards your chin. Repeat this 3-6 times. Encourage students to make noises. If a student is nonverbal, he or she can stick out their tongue as far as possible while breathing without making noise. This type of breathing warms the body and gives us a focused energy. I like doing this after we transition from one activity to the next, especially if I notice a lot of frantic energy that results from moving from task to task.
3. Make art a meditative and calming time. Like yoga, art offers an opportunity to slow down, be mindful of the world around us, and connect with our brains in interesting and creative ways. Consider different sensory and tactile experiences when selecting an art project. Involve all the senses in the process. Slowing down our artistic processes to have a calmer experience can be the difference between a frustrated student who wants the product to look a certain way, and a student whose creativity is open and flowing as they experiment with materials.
4. Focus on the process. Creating art that emphasizes the process and focuses on the sensory experience of creating can have very therapeutic and lasting calming effects. Take time to explore your materials in a way that is accessible to each student. Feel paintbrushes, touch paper surfaces, squish clay, smell paint, rip and fold paper, and listen to the sound of scissors as they cut through paper. Consider letting children explore with watercolors before a test, or squishing clay after a long lesson where they needed to concentrate.
5. Breathe before you look. Taking a deep breath before you begin to explore a work of art can help us settle and focus our attention. There is also research that suggests it helps us remember what we see. Looking at a work of art and discussing it together can be beneficial in many ways: it helps us with observational skills; it focuses our attention; it enhances our language skills; and it develops social and emotional skills. Encourage students to sit comfortably with a work of art (this can be a poster, something projected, or a reproduction at their seat) and guide their looking in a soothing voice. For example, suggest they look at each corner of the painting; let their eyes wander over the top, middle, and bottom; focus on the frame; zoom in on a detail, etc. This helps students focus their attention and notice things they may never have seen.
Meghan Lally Keaton is a Museum Educator and the Coordinator of Community Engagement for the Art Around the Corner Program at the National Gallery of Art. Her work focuses on community outreach efforts with students and families in D.C. Public Schools.