Teaching high school students how to breathe

I had the honor of speaking to several high school honors classes at Lake Forest High School this week — at the invitation of an old friend from high school, Liz.

Liz contacted me over Facebook several months ago and asked if I’d be willing to talk to her stressed-out students about yoga and meditation.  She had been following my yoga journey via social media and thought my experience might benefit her students.  Liz and I hadn’t seen each other in over a decade.  But when we got on the phone to discuss the objectives behind her idea, we slipped into easy conversation and stayed on the phone for nearly two hours.  When I got more grounding in what she was hoping to accomplish by having me come up to speak, I was jazzed with the opportunity.

Here I am, with a vague (yet pure!) intention to communicate the benefits of breathing, yoga, meditation, slowing the f$%^ down … and a timely opportunity manifests itself.  It just lands in my lap!  Boom!  Here you go, Erica!  (A paid opportunity, at that.)  It’s amazing how the universe at times can conspire to serve me in this capacity.  It doesn’t always happen this easily, of course.  But when it does, wow.

What made this opportunity particularly poignant is that I can relate to these students.  One-hundred percent.  I was once in their shoes.  I was was the high-strung over-achiever.  Obsessed with grades.  Driven to maintain “perfection” for my parents, teachers, prospective colleges, myself.  I could provide my personal anecdotes and perspective, as an outsider, that wasn’t coated in bullshit.  That opportunity energized me.

Below is picture of Liz and me in our AP European World History class from 1997.  We’re all smiles because we had both been accepted to our colleges of choice by this time.

And here is a picture of Liz and I taken this week, nearly seventeen years later.  (We haven’t changed that much, right?)

The theme of my talk was made obvious in its title: “Just breathe.”

Students were asked to take their shoes off before entering the room, which most found amusing.  (Not many guest speakers kick things off with this sort of comfy novelty.)  Over the course of each class, I kept the presentation experiential — as experiences are what stick.  My intention was that something unique about this experience would, in fact, stick and hopefully serve them later on, perhaps before their next big exam.

After amusing them with pictures of Liz and me as high school students — to capture their attention and ground them in the “We were once you” theme — I guided them through a series of breathing exercises.  Among them: Anapanasati meditation with Samavritti breathing, Ujjai breath, Sitali breath and belly breathing.  Before and after the five minutes of Anapanasati I asked students to take their pulse for one minute.  Nearly all of them experienced a drop in heart rate after this breathing/meditative exercise.  And nearly all of them liked this breathing exercise best.  Responses include: “It calmed me down.”  “It chilled me out.”  “I felt relaxed.”  “It calmed my mind.”

Bingo!  Bingo!  Bingo!  Bingo!

If anything, hopefully they remember this.  From the response I received during and after my talks, I think I managed to reach a handful of these students.  There were some pretty intuitive and articulate students in the bunch!  And for those who didn’t speak up, hopefully I piqued their curiosity — even just a little.

I’d love to do more talks centered around breathing.  It was fun and fits nicely into my yoga vocation while making the most of my public speaking skills.  I have already been contacted by a few other high school buddies to mirror it with their students.  (It’s amazing what a little Facebook publicity can yield.)  So … who knows where this opportunity may lead.  In the meantime, I’m so grateful to Liz for reaching out to me and pursuing this for her students.

It was such a gift to watch those stressed-out teenage faces go serene during the meditation and breathing exercises.

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