How Yoga Makes me a Better Science Teacher
We can learn a lot about teaching and learning by going outside of our discipline. Those of us who end up as science teachers were the ones who found science interesting and rewarding, if not always easy. The way we were taught worked for us, and it is sometimes hard for us to see where our students might get stuck. But getting outside of our comfort zone by taking a yoga class, learning to knit, or going to a lecture on art history can help us to reconnect with the feeling of being a novice. If we hold onto these experiences when we are teaching, it will help us to have empathy for the experiences our students are having.
I have gone to many yoga classes over the years. My mind sometimes wanders as I’m sitting quietly (I’m clearly not very good at the meditation aspect of yoga), and I wonder, why do so many people choose to go to yoga classes? The same could be asked about any exercise classes. These are adults with busy lives who pay money to come to this class every week. Why do they keep coming back? What is it about the experience that is important to them? Learning yoga is a difficult task, particularly for those who do not think of themselves as being very flexible. However, the way that yoga is typically taught is inviting, even for beginners. So I began to think about what my physics classes would look like if I employed some of the same teaching strategies that we see in a yoga class.
Here’s what I learned about teaching and learning science from doing yoga:
The first part of many yoga classes is devoted to breathing deeply and clearing your mind of everything else. Your one single focus for the next hour is on yoga and your body. How great would it be if our students left everything else behind at the door and focused intently on physics for a whole hour? No phones, no texting, no worrying about the chemistry exam that is happening tomorrow, just physics.
Yoga teachers often remind their students that yoga is a practice. No one is perfect and we all improve when our bodies are ready. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to work hard to learn yoga but we need to be aware of our limitations, and modify poses as necessary. As science teachers, we need to challenge students at an appropriate level and find ways to facilitate learning at their pace. One yoga instructor encourages us to find our “compassionate edge.” (This is the zone of proximal development.) We need to push students just enough to find their edge, a place where they are challenged, but capable of success. This means that some students might get farther in some assignments than others. Learning the skills necessary to do science takes time. How can we challenge ourselves to provide differentiated assignments to meet the needs of our students? Can we be as positive and encouraging as a yoga teacher?
Additionally, yoga classes are all about doing yoga. A yoga student doesn’t sit back and watch a lecture on yoga, she doesn’t watch the teacher do yoga and take notes. Rather, she actively participates in the class. The teacher may demonstrate new poses while everyone follows along. The teacher then corrects postures and provides modifications as necessary. In our science classes, our students also need to be actively engaged in the learning process. We can demonstrate how to solve a problem on the board, but then we need to provide opportunities for them to engage with the material on their own, in lectures as well as laboratories or discussion sections.
Teachers or students?
Along the same lines, many of the yoga teachers I have had will talk openly about their instructors. This reminds us that they too are students, still refining their skills, and learning more about the field. Their role in the class is to facilitate a yoga practice for their students, it is not to be the all-knowing authority on all things yoga. This is the role that teachers should have in science classrooms as well. We are not here to transmit our vast amounts of knowledge to the students, but to help facilitate their intellectual development be providing experiences and opportunities to learn. And, as with the yoga teachers, it may be helpful to remind students that we are still learning new things as well (e.g. new science, new teaching strategies, etc.)
There are several resting poses that are part of any yoga practice. Two of the most common ones are downward facing dog and child’s pose. In child’s pose, you sit on the floor with your head between your knees and let your arms hang down by your side. After a difficult series of poses, yoga practioners need time to rest their bodies and restore breath. The same is true in science classes. After solving a difficult problem, our students need some time to rest their brains and process what they have just done. We need to provide opportunities for reflection and metacognition.
Downward facing dog is another resting pose, but one that requires you to be actively using your muscles. At the beginning of a yoga practice, downward dog warms the body; at the end of a difficult sequence of poses, it provides a time to take a brief rest, while still remaining somewhat active. The analog to downward dog in my physics class is giving the students easier or more familiar problems that they definitely can solve. Sometimes this is a warm up before solving a challenging problem, and other times to boost their confidence after a difficult exam. They are “resting” in the sense that they aren’t working hard at something new, but they are still using and refining their skills. Downward dog often doesn’t seem like a resting pose to novices, but as you advance through your yoga practice, you appreciate it more and more. In the same way, those simple physics problems that were once so difficult become comforting and familiar as students progress.
And then at the end of each yoga practice is shivasina, the final relaxation. For this pose, you lie on the floor, close your eyes, clear your head, and reflect on your practice. Personally, this is when I have to work not to fall asleep, and challenge myself to reflect on how my body feels. Usually, I come to the conclusion that it was worth it to get up early and I’m eager to start my day. What would this look like in a science class? When do we give students a chance to look back over the semester and reflect on what they have learned? Was it worth it? Will they come back for more? Final projects or portfolios can be an opportunity for final assessment as well as reflection on the learning that has occurred throughout the semester.
The traditional closure to a yoga class is to say “Namaste” and bow your head to both the teacher and other students. Roughly translated, this means “the light in me sees the light in you.” The teachers also will thank the students for sharing their practice for the day. This is a sign of respect that teachers have for the students and that students have for each other and the teachers. I think that many classrooms would benefit from this level of respect of both teachers and students. It may be there, but we should acknowledge this mutual respect on a daily basis.