Turning Up the Quiet

A First Step for Teaching Urban Kids to Write

I wore my yoga top under my shirt the first day of school.  A ninth-grade English teacher in Chattanooga’s newest charter school, I had spent half of August studying with Jeffrey Davis, founder of Yoga as Muse, a system of yogic tools that awaken creativity and sustain life as a writer. I couldn’t wait to try it out on my new ninth-graders who would begin high school here. Most were from failing schools, many in the high-crime areas near downtown.

The hope of the school’s founder was that creating a sense of environmental stewardship might ignite a yearning to learn—that it might awaken students to a sense of something big outside themselves.  Most of our classes were to be held outside—sitting on rocks in the woods, wading in the river that bordered our property, or hiking the mountains outside classroom windows.  These felt like the perfect writing spots, like the perfect place to feel that sense of something big.

On the last night of my summer vacation, I had watched a video about the Namaste Charter School in Chicago and had re-read a study done by California State University, both offering even more credence to my belief: a positive correlation exists between yoga and academic success.  When I finally had fallen asleep, I had dreamed about a ring of students in a stand of oak trees, breathing in unison through Downward Facing Dog, pencils and journals on the ground beside them, bright images in their minds.

Reality was different.

I welcomed my new students, all seated on the ground in a woodsy clearing.  While I asked them to ponder what using yoga as an inspiration to write might look like, one boy wrote, I don’t write on rocks on a rock. A girl who looked too tiny to be in ninth grade said, “I’m not allowed to talk about yoga. We go to church.”  Another told me she was allergic to the pine needles on the ground, and someone screamed because an ant crawled over his shoe.

Hoping to calm them, I had them stand for a series of three simple yoga postures. Amid snickers and cartoon voice Oms, they pushed each other down from tree pose, mimicked passing gas during standing mountain posture, and held their noses at others’ underarms when I told them to reach their arms to the sky.

Back inside, I led a conversation intended to evoke memories of a positive writing experience. A girl at the back table applied glitter lip gloss; beside her, a friend shared the mirror to pick at a hair extension. A boy near the front drew lightning bolts on his forearm. “Sounds like somebody is peeing in here,” someone yelled out when the room was finally quiet enough to hear the stone fountain on my desk.

When I asked them to turn to the first page in their journals and to write something about themselves that might help me know them better, they sketched images of guns and hearts and drew flourished initials with markers. Those who wrote at all kept it at safe: names of brothers and sisters, birth dates, pet names, and the discomfort of writing personal information. I knew there were deeper layers.

At the end of day one, I felt like a child who has lost her mother at the shopping mall and doesn’t know who to ask for help. I googled Getting to Know You Worksheets for the next day before reminding myself that most of these were kids who failed at filling out worksheets. I took a long child’s pose, leaning forward on my knees, before opening to Chapter One in Jeffrey’s book, The Journey from the Center to the Page, and I re-read my highlighted passages about intention setting, a primary tenet of Yoga as Muse.  Jeffrey says that intention can center the mind and imagination, and he begins each of his writing sessions by standing at his desk, hands at heart and eyes closed. After taking two full breaths, he quietly asks, “What am I writing for?”

I followed suit:  What is the most important thing I can teach these students?

The answer seeped into the stillness: The most important thing I can teach these students is how to quiet themselves… Only then can they hear anything: instructions for yoga poses, stories that beg notice, emotions that want validation. Without quiet, they cannot hear the acknowledgement of their own worth.

Quiet. With all that I knew about teaching yoga and teaching writing, I had forgotten the first step. I opened my Yoga as Muse training manual and refreshed myself on brain waves, realizing that most of my students’ oscillated fast, way too fast.

Our sympathetic nervous system, allowing our ancestors to fight or flee when faced with a saber-toothed tiger, triggers the same response in present day humans. My ninth-graders’ predators—shootings, police sirens, parental abuse, hunger, responsibilities for younger siblings, loud TV and louder music—don’t go away like the saber-toothed tiger used to, however. My guess was that chronically high levels of cortisol, generated by the sympathetic nervous system, were keeping them in a state of constant stress and causing their brain waves to oscillate about 30 times each second. This would place them in the Beta 4 range, a state of hyper-vigilance and distraction. No wonder my students were unable to focus.

Neuroscientists at the University of North Texas and Rockefeller University have concluded that yogic breathing can slow Beta 4 waves by half, resulting in Alpha wave activity, that relaxed, alert feeling we get when we are in the zone.

The May 2007 issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine reported that Boston University School of Medicine researchers had discovered a twenty-seven percent GABA rise in eight subjects after one hour of breathing and yoga poses. GABA is a neurotransmitter responsible for calming the body and the mind.

Professor Luciano Bernardi of the Italian University of Pavia studied the effects of chanting the Tibetan mantra “Om Many Padme Hum” and the Catholic prayer “Ave Maria.” In both cases, the chanting slowed the breath down to only six breaths per minute. His conclusion was this: Rhythm formulas that involve breathing at six breaths per minute induce favorable psychological and possibly physiological effects.

When Monday morning came, I asked everyone to sit in a circle on the pine needles. I offered my allergic student a blanket. Without my yogic smile, I said, “We’re going to close our eyes and breathe through our noses for one minute, and we are going to sit here until you do it.”

In the first ten seconds, they snored, hummed, and giggled.

My face was steel. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s start over.”

After enough defeat, even the strongest dog in the pack will lie on its back. After the ninth try, they surrendered. For one minute, they were quiet.  One minute.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” someone answered, “like my breathing is all slow or something.”

Another said, “It got so quiet in here, I like started to remember this old beat-up car we had when we lived in Chicago.”

“I was thinking about this dog we had when I was little.”

“I started remembering about my daddy.”

In the cold of this late December morning, I am reading a stack of journal entries at the kitchen table and preparing for a new semester of school. Although I’m not certain which novel will resonate or which challenge of grammar we’ll address yet, I know one thing. We will write, and I know that each writing session will begin the same way it has for the past two months, with ten minutes of breathing and simple yoga poses. “What are you writing for?”  I will continue to ask in January. “What is your intention for today’s class?”

Most of the voices in this journal stack are authentic and deep. In one, I read about how tightly its author shut her eyes while being raped. In another, I read about how the blood of a murdered friend felt warm in its author’s lap. I’m sick of caring whether you laugh at me, a boy who has begun to wear rhinestone bracelets has written; and another has penned, This page is the only thing that cares about what I think. They aren’t all heart wrenching. One entry gives instructions for skipping math by hiding in a dumpster, and another is titled “How to Drive Your English Teacher Crazy.” That teacher is me, and number one on the list is: Before you write, always remember to ask if spelling counts.

When the temperature had begun to drop in early December, we migrated inside for classes. The last day of school before Christmas break, I looked around at my classroom and noticed the same students who had once thought the only thing they had to offer was the name of a favorite nail polish shade or the date of a birth. That December day, with a forecast of sleet over their outdoor spots, they were focused at their desks, appearing to listen to an inner speaker, as they wrote in journals with Santa pencils I’d given them. The tiny fountain was bubbling, and the bulletin board was pinned with nature observations. When I write, I am free like this waterfall, my glitter-lipped student had written. Someone had brought in red and green cookies, and a boy wearing his sister’s bracelets brushed crumbs off his desk before resettling his notebook. A grocery store pot of poinsettias sat on my desk, a gift from my ninth-graders. The card said, Thank you for everything.

Slowing the breath to get quiet has allowed my students to turn down the noise of their lives and to tap into the quiet truth of who they are. Will it change the way they live in the world?  I hope so. Will it change the way their ability to focus and write? I am certain of it.

Tammy Smith

Tammy Smith has spent close to three decades helping young people discover who they are through writing. A middle and high school English teacher, she earned her Registered Yoga Instructor certification in 2007 and began incorporating yogic science into her writing lessons. In 2010, she studied with Jeffrey Davis, author of From Center to Page, to become a Yoga as Muse facilitator. Tammy currently teaches sixth- and seventh-grade English at St. Jude Catholic School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.