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Just Breathe

Mindfulness practice is increasingly making its way into the college classroom. Here’s how it helps students learn – and a quick 3-step breathing exercise you can use, too.

January 28, 2020

By Cory Phare

Let’s try something: Before you read any further, close your eyes for 12 seconds. No peeking!

Welcome back.

What did you notice? Any particular sounds or sensations?

What about your breathing? Nothing? If you’re not in touch with your breath, you may be missing out on an opportunity to improve your state of mind – and your GPA.

Breathing is a critical component of mindfulness, which is any exercise one can do to improve their state of mind or consciousness, said Chris Jennings, chair of Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Journalism and Media Production.

“Typically, we humans breathe just enough to survive. We don’t ever not do it – but do we breathe enough? I don’t think so,” said Jennings, who also teaches yoga to address trauma-informed stress in U.S. military veterans.

Mindfulness is increasingly being integrated into the classrooms of an interdisciplinary cadre of educators. The practice is proving effective to help students of all levels deal with the stresses of modern life and prime them for academic success. 

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“The basic idea of mindfulness is noticing what’s happening in a nonjudgmental and nonreactive way,” said Kristy Lyons, associate professor of psychological sciences at MSU Denver who studies mindfulness and metacognition in children and adolescents. “It takes a lifetime to master, but almost anyone can benefit from even just a few minutes of guided practice.”

There are two physiological impacts of mindfulness, she said. First, parts of the brain that process emotional responses show reduced activation to stressors. Second, it enhances the function of our prefrontal cortex – the part that deals with decision-making and self-control.

“We essentially don’t get as upset at things that stress us out, and if something does start to bother us, we’re able to manage our emotional action,” Lyons said. “It’s dual-action.”

Balance anytime, anyplace

These physiological impacts may be a result of what Harvard University physician Herbert Benson dubbed the “relaxation response” in 1975. The phenomenon is essentially a way to short-circuit our fight-or-flight response and bring the body back to a sense of homeostasis, said Michelle Tollefson, a physician and associate professor with MSU Denver’s Department of Health Professions, one of the 10 departments making up the University’s recently launched Health Institute.

When she realized that the implications for college students could be major, Tollefson began examining the negative impact of the stress response from our bodies’ sympathetic nervous system and how the balance restored by its parasympathetic counterpart could be brought about by techniques including mindfulness, meditation and breathwork. It’s directly tied to stress-management mitigation outlined by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, on which Tollefson currently serves as secretary, and studied by students in MSU Denver’s lifestyle-medicine undergraduate major, the first in the country.

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These benefits can be accessed anytime, anyplace, she said.

“When I saw that, along with how easily the relaxation response could be elicited, I decided it would be wise to pass along this information – and practice – to my students,” said Tollefson, who is a former guest faculty member for Harvard’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine.

That involved extra-credit assignments incorporating stress-reduction mindful practice across 14 courses. Positive self-reported results on students’ stress-related coping skills are outlined in subsequently published findings.

“Bringing a sense of peace and presence helps individuals be better able to fully engage in the classroom – and beyond, throughout their lives,” she said. “I wanted to give students an opportunity to try different techniques that were evidence-based and rooted in science.”

"Stress responses were useful, say, when you
"Stress responses were useful, say, when you're being chased by a tiger, but we're confronted with chronic low-level stress every day, things like 'How am I going to pay my bills?'" said Michelle Tollefson. One of the benefits of mindfulness she noted is its ability to be practiced almost anywhere - like Savannah Bustos does on a rooftop in front of the Denver skyline. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Learning outcomes for education

Mindful pedagogy also extends beyond the college classroom, said Ingrid Carter, associate professor of elementary education and literacy. Elementary, middle and high school students can all benefit from incorporating the practice in their daily schedule – and it’s helping them achieve the social and emotional wellness comprehensive standards laid out by the state.

Carter leads her elementary education students through 5 minutes of practice – whether that’s sitting with a guided visualization, a music-based technique or an exercise where students eat apple slices or raisins, paying attention to the sensation of taste.

“Mediating conflict and self-regulation are all part of what Colorado’s Department of Education states students need to be able to do,” she said.

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Kacey Mellentine, who took Carter’s course on elementary science and health education, said she intends to employ a similar practice when she’s leading a classroom.

“Students might come back in from recess complaining about someone who wouldn’t play foursquare with them,” said the elementary-education student. “When you’re focused on that, it prevents you from putting your best foot forward in the classroom – it’s easy to be distracted thinking about something that’s about to happen or what just did.”

Centering the mind counters that, she has learned. And counter to some impressions, the goal isn’t to not think.

“It doesn’t mean shutting off completely – it’s about focus and just being present in what you’re doing,” Carter said.

“Coherent breath”

Which brings us back to your breath.

When Jennings takes a few minutes to lead students through mindfulness practices at the start of his classes, he’ll often discuss the concept of “coherent breath,” a focused and paused inhalation for 6 seconds, followed by an exhale of 6 seconds.

“The pause is significant,” he said. “Think about a basketball player shooting a free throw: They take a nice, deep breath in to aid in concentration and get perspective. Similarly, it’s important and helpful for a student to take a few seconds to re-center when they sit down to write a paper.”

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To do this, one exercise he recommends is a three-point focus of breathing – which you can practice along with.

First, become aware that you’re actively breathing, drawing air in and pushing it out. Next, visualize how the breath enters the lungs, focusing on how it feels – the temperatures on the inhales and exhales, the sensation of movement throughout the body and how your chest rises and falls. Finally, and the most difficult part, Jennings said, is listening to the breath, tuning your ears in and challenging them to hear through the sounds of the world.

It’s innocuous enough to be practiced in a classroom (or a boardroom, for that matter) but a gentle nudge that can remind us of the presence of the present.

“You’re not breathing the air from yesterday or tomorrow,” Jennings said. “It’s right in front of you, right now.”

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