Emily McCormack, Founding Partner UB.U

The beginning of the new school year also was the start of our UB.U pilot program for 2014-2015. It’s been a whirlwind and we’re thrilled to be teaching mindfulness, movement and relaxation in 17 classrooms in Eagle County, from kindergarten through high school.

Last week, I got to spend time with kinder and first grade students at Eagle Valley Elementary School (EVES). Since this was the first time many of the kindergarteners had experienced a UB.U lesson we kicked things off with the basics: mindful listening.

Imagine being five or six years old and sitting mindfully – criss-cross-applesauce – with eyes gently closed, just listening. No moving, no thinking, no giggling, no twitching, itching or tapping. This is a tough exercise for many adults, so you can only imagine how the kids fare. So much for basic, right?

Kids’ bodies are biologically wired to be in motion. And yet we, as adults, ask kids to be still and listen. A lot. I can hear myself ask it of my own children and I cringe. But, in our society, this is sometimes a necessity (in school, for instance). Yet, we haven’t provided our kids with the tools to listen and be still.

UB.U to the rescue…we’ve got the tools!

We begin with mindful listening. First, I taught the kinders and first graders how to put on their mindful bodies (criss- cross-applesauce, straight spine, attentive and peaceful in their seats), which allowed calm and quiet to fill the room. We practiced the difference between mindful bodies and crazy, lazy bodies for a few moments, and then I introduced yoga bells. The kids LOVE the bells. I asked them to put on their mindful bodies and open their ears. And then I rang the bells. The kids listened and let big, bright smiles light up their faces as the bells sang.

We tried the bells a second time; this time I asked the kids to raise their hands when the bells stopped singing. We practiced with the bells a third time, this time with eyes closed so our sense of hearing could be even stronger. I was awestruck by the pure wonder packaged in these tiny bodies. The kids, again, put on mindful bodies and the room grew quiet. They closed their eyes and prepared to listen. They smiled and raised their hands when the bells stopped singing.

And, after all of that sitting and listening they were ready to move. And, move we did. We played several rounds of “Yogi Says” – UB.U’s version of “Simon Says,” which incorporates yoga-based movement and teaches presence, awareness, honesty, respect and non-judgment. It also helps kids prepare for breathing and relaxation. Before we ended our session we focused our attention on our breath, another basic tool that packs a big punch. I taught the kids “magic breath,” guiding them to focus on breathing into their bellies, which acts as a counter to our sympathetic nervous system’s fight, flight, freeze response. Belly – or diaphragmatic – breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, a nerve running from the base of the brain to the tummy, which is responsible for mediating nervous system response. In layman’s terms this increases focus, calms the mind and helps us pause before we act or respond. And the ‘magic’ keeps manifesting.

Scientists and researchers are discovering more benefits, like increased brain size, lower blood pressure and heart rate (helping to prevent stroke and lower risk of cerebral aneurysm) and even changes in genetic expression (immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion). Magic breath is a great tool and it’s just challenging enough to keep even the antsiest kids focused. And when they’ve mastered magic breath, they can call upon it whenever they need it for as long as they live.

Finally, I asked the kids to take a comfortable position on their mats – lying on their backs, bellies or sides – for Quiet Time, a chance to quiet their brains and focus on guided or silent relaxation. This is immediately easy for some and more challenging for others. But, when the semester-long class is over, kids cite Quiet Time as their favorite aspect of class – almost to the child. I have my own theories about this outcome, but would like to leave you with that thought to contemplate. Mindfully, of course.