Social-Emotional Learning & the Breath
The body and mind are a package deal, connected through our nervous system. This means that whatever is happening in your mind is affecting your body and vice versa. This understanding is one of the key components of social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL isn’t just for school students, though; it’s for all of us. Whether we are in class, at home, or in the office, cultivating an understanding of ourselves and the people with whom we interact can help us experience a greater sense of ease in the midst of a busy or demanding day.
Building an awareness of our emotions helps us notice in the moment how our body is feeling (energized, sluggish, or content), as well as how our mind is functioning (top speed, road-blocked, or in a flow state). This noticing allows us the time and space to make wise choices about our thoughts and actions. It also helps us recognize when we’re distractible or falling into a mid-afternoon slump. Thankfully, there’s a direct line of access to our nervous system – the breath. Generally, a deeper in-breath can be energizing, and a longer out-breath can be calming. So once you’ve cultivated the skill of noticing your thoughts and emotions you can choose the type of breath you need in the moment.
Sometimes it can feel like the weight of the world (or our own anxiety) is keeping us from accomplishing even the smallest of tasks. Thankfully, the breath can be an immediate source of energy, as well as calm, fueling our body with fresh oxygen and bringing our nervous system into greater balance. When you’re feeling a bit jittery or sluggish, or you sense this energy in your students, try one of these breathing practices on your own or with your whole class.
When anxiety is present, or there’s a sense of being on edge, extending your exhalation can send a signal to your brain that all is well. Breathing out for slightly longer than your normal rhythm can activate your body’s rest and restore response and help to bring about a sense of well-being and calm focus.
Follow these steps to see how straw breath can help you slow down and settle into ease:
- Sit comfortably and breathe in through your nose
- Purse your lips as if using a drinking straw and exhale slowly
- Notice your abdominal muscles helping to extend your exhalation
- Allow the next inhalation to happen on its own and enjoy its fullness
- Repeat 3, 5, or 10x
Instead of grabbing another snack or beverage to boost your energy, breathe a little deeper and notice the effects of that extra oxygen on your sense of vitality. This breath is characterized by pausing during your inhalation. It’s like enjoying little sips of breath all in a row.
Follow these steps to see how sipping breath can help revitalize your focus:
- Sit or stand comfortably and allow your shoulders to feel heavy
- Take a small breath in through your nose and pause
- Take another sip of breath and pause
- Take one last bit of breath in and pause
- Slowly release the breath through your nose
- Repeat 2 or 3x and notice the effects. Rest here if you like, or take a few more rounds of breaths as it suits you*
*You can make these sips of breath as big or small as you like. Experiment by breathing in different amounts to find what feels right for you.
Bumble Bee Breath
This breath is just what you might be thinking – when you and your students exhale with an “mmmmm” sound, you’ll sound just like bumblebees! This breath is a powerful tool for grounding, centering, and bringing about a calm focus. When the energy level in you or your students feels scattered, jumbled, too low, or too high, bumblebee breath turns attention inward and creates a sense of balance – perfect for settling in after transitions or interruptions.
Here are three different variations of Bumble Bee Breath. Notice the different effects:
- Sit comfortably and breathe in through your nose. Gently press your lips together while you exhale making an “mmmmm” sound. Breathe out for as long as you can without forcing.
- Breathe in and out the same way as described above, but this time with your eyes closed. Notice how you feel.
- To try the last variation, softly cup your hands over your ears. Notice if this brings your attention inward, and if you can feel the vibration of your voice in addition to hearing the sound.
You can repeat this a few times pausing between each breath to notice how you feel.
When in doubt, extend your exhalation. This not only creates room for your next energizing in-breath, but it sends a signal to your brain that there’s no need to be on high alert. Long out-breaths also activate your body’s relaxation response and can usher in a sense of ease and well-being.
Remember: breathe well, be well!
Amy Secrist, Mindfulness and Yoga Educator (E-RYT 300+), brings 20 years of personal yoga practice and over 16 years of yoga teaching experience to Mind Body Align. She is a trained instructor of trauma-based mindful education. In addition to teaching the MBAwareness Program, she is co-creator of social emotional learning curriculum content. Amy earned her BA in English and Writing from The Ohio State University and her MA in English and Writing from The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, Vermont. Amy is married to Jeremy and has four school-aged children.