Neuroplasticity in Education through Yoga and Mindfulness
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain,” declared Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934), Spanish neuroscientist and pathologist specializing in neuroanatomy. However, for decades it was believed that by the age of five the brain was fully developed and unchanging; that all the functions of the human body controlled by the brain and its accompanying network of neural pathways were set and immutable. Digital imaging technology has shattered these myths and propelled us into a new frontier in brain research.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) came into use in the early 1990’s and measures changes in brain activity by depicting blood flow to the various regions of the brain. Studies of brain development utilizing fMRI have proved that the human brain not only continues to develop throughout early adulthood (mid-late 20’s), but also that the neural pathways of the brain can be “rewired” and that new pathways can be forged throughout the lifespan. This is the scientific foundation for the concept of neuroplasticity.
In the realm of education, the concept of neuroplasticity serves as the basis for a variety of “Cognitive Training” interventions and “Brain-Based Learning” practices. These interventions may be physically, cognitively or technologically based and are offered in a variety of venues. Programs tied to each of these modalities continue to introduce themselves into the commercial market on a regular basis. For some of these programs, many costing hundreds (and even thousands) of dollars, their reliability and validity have yet to be established.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presents the concept of the “10,000 Hour Rule”. Gladwell theorizes that in order to truly become a master of a given activity an individual must first spend 10,000 hours practicing. He makes reference specifically to great athletes and musicians who have trained their bodies (and correspondingly their brains) to respond intuitively. The power of the nervous system to develop and maintain new connections between the body and the mind through repeated exposure exemplifies the concept of neuroplasticity.
The connection between the body and mind is hardly a new one. Humans have understood this concept for thousands of years. One of the earliest practices to harness this connection is yoga. The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit yunakti and literally means “to join”. Working to join the movement of the body to affect the consciousness and focus of the mind, yoga has moved into the classroom in recent years to focus students and prepare them for learning.
CBA's own Elizabeth Cason, registered yoga teacher through the Yoga Alliance, has been working to develop the mind-body connection for our students for the past 5 years. As the leader of CBA’s extended care program, Elizabeth possesses a unique understanding of CBA’s students both on and off their Yoga mats. Cason utilizes her understanding of the mind-body connection to support her students in the classroom through deep breathing exercises and body-awareness, teaching them to tune into their energy level. Elizabeth's overarching goal is to empower kids with the self-awareness that leads to improved self-control.
Directly connected to the physical practice of yoga, CBA students further develop the mind-body association through the practice of mindfulness. Middle school director Margaret Meyers is a certified Mindful Schools instructor and a personal practitioner of mindfulness. Helping students learn to better manage the emotional roller-coaster that is adolescence with skills they’ll use for a lifetime is a central tenet of her leadership.
As we continue along the evolutionary path of 21st century educational practice, there is little doubt that the emphasis on neuroplasticity and brain-based instruction will expand exponentially. CBA will continue to explore these new practices and lead the way in developing educational best-practices for our students with learning differences, and all learners across the educational continuum.
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