I started doing yoga again recently, partially in an effort to get back in shape, but also to give myself some “me” time. By the end of the school year, I tend to get into a pattern where I’ve put all of my effort into my classroom and my students, so much that I haven’t taken care of me. I find myself on the edge of burnout, like the embers of a summer campfire slowly growing cold. And in order to help myself get reignited, I find yoga to be most helpful.
But what was most interesting to me about yoga this week was not the fact that it helped me to feel revitalized and refreshed in these last three weeks of school. It was, instead, the fact that I realized how much yoga can actually teach us about learning — and about ourselves.
“Notice how it feels different now,” the instructor said at the end of class, “than it did in the beginning of class.”
He was referring to our “downward dog” position, a repetitive pose that occurs many, many times throughout the course of a session. It consists of your hands out in front of you, your legs in the back, and your tailbone pushing upward to the sky, forming an upside-down V-shape. And by the end of class, after having done the position many times, I did notice the difference. My body was looser, my hips more aligned, my legs stretching in ways they weren’t when I started the class.
Of course, this is entirely intentional, and of course, by the end of class, this is what we’d expect to happen. However, it was not the change in my body that interested me. Instead, it’s how the change in my body occurred that interested me the most.
There’s a practice out there called “looping,” and this practice can easily be defined as providing repetitive practice on similar skills to make gains towards “mastery.” For instance, if an educator is trying to help a child gain proficiency in multi-digit addition, he or she might continue to provide them similar problems, so that they gain more opportunities to analyze their mistakes and continue building towards mastery.
In some cases, I’ve seen this be very successful. Providing students with repetitive practice promotes short, actionable feedback loops that they can act upon in a very short amount of time. On the other hand, this can be exhausting, decontextualized, and train students into a way of thinking that is linear and uni-directional.
And this has been one of the conundrums I’ve struggled with over the past few years and still struggle with in my current classroom. If I see a child is struggling with a skill, and I see they need more practice, do I give them repetitive problems over and over, do I give them a break, or do I come back at the same skill from a different angle?
What interested me the most about last week’s yoga class was that, by the end of class, I didn’t improve my downward dog through “looping.” Sure, I came back to downward dog many, many times, but I didn’t sit there, and continuously go from resting to downward dog, from resting to downward dog, making small changes and becoming over-analytical of my practice for sixty minutes. Instead, the process of improving my downward dog looked quite different.
I began in downward dog, and then went through a variety of positions — positions that exercised the same muscles, just in different ways. Eventually, I’d make my way back to downward dog, incrementally increasing my proficiency in the pose each time I came back to it. By the end of class, I was able to reflect on my practice and my progress, seeing a marked change in my flexibility, my core strength, and my positioning.
And I couldn’t help but see so many parallels to the classroom.
Instead of repetitive, rote practice — a practice of which I, myself, am guilty — I wonder now how might we better support proficiency in a variety of skills by allowing students focused practice, meanwhile giving them the opportunity to exercise the same muscles in different ways, still always, and intentionally, spiraling back to those same muscles?
It seems to me that, if we took this more cyclical approach to teaching and learning, that we might support what we’re really going for — flexibility, adaptability, and a contextualized approach to seemingly decontextualized skills. But what strikes me even more is this: What if we viewed all skills as complementary and no skill as entirely orthogonal? What if, when we’re teaching — and when our children are learning — we viewed all learning experiences as ways to flex, contract, and relax muscles that peripherally strengthen all of our learning muscles?
If we took this view, might we develop more flexible learners? Might we develop more adaptable kids? Better yet, might we develop more focused, centered, and present learning experiences in our classrooms?
I’ve always been utterly surprised by the benefits yoga has brought to my body and to my mind. Within a matter of days, my body feels tighter, my positions begin to become more fluid, and my confidence begins to grow. And it’s not because someone is pushing me along; rather, it’s because I’m pushing myself. I think, as teachers, we can take a couple of lessons from this practice, especially in an era that has glorified mastery learning.
We can see that learning is cyclical, that learning is peripheral, and that learning is entirely in the hands of the students who choose to come to the “mat” each and every day. We can see that it’s a vulnerable practice, one that doesn’t take a teacher who controls every variable in the classroom, but instead, a nurturing coach that helps to guide children through intentional movements, allowing them to find their own strength along the way.
But most of all, we can see that learning is about the process: it requires starting out cold, stretching yourself, flexing your muscles, and coming back to where you started. It requires reflection and taking a risk, all in an effort to notice the small victories along the way, and then, of course… to try again.