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executive functions yoga

Yoga Program West LA MY Education Guru

Hello, my name is Whitney and before you read any further, it’s important that you know that you are the observer of your thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. Wow, what a rush of relief! This is the essence of yoga and meditation and it has enlightened my instruction methods as a doctor of learning sciences, a yoga teacher, and a creativity enthusiast.

Yoga found me in my 7th grade charter school here in Los Angeles. It was fun to move my hyperflexible body into bendy positions without risk of judgment. I didn’t have words for it yet, but I felt more attentive, focused, and relaxed at the same time. However, at the end of class, we sat in a circle, held crystals, and chanted in a mystifying language without receiving explanation for how this was applicable. This set off all of my internal alarms from my strict Protestant upbringing and I thought yoga was a religion that was fine for others, but not for me. It wasn’t until I was at the University of Washington earning my PhD in educational psychology in the field of learning sciences that I took a yoga class with a friend who invited me. Just a quick study break, I told myself. By the end of class, I had experienced a revelation about a problem that had given me “writer’s block” in my exam preparations, I had adapted to physically challenging poses, and I hadn’t walked out of the room when I wanted to give up! Since that clarifying trifecta moment, I learned that yoga is not a religion at all, but a space to reconnect my mind, body, and heart. I have accumulated degrees and certifications that allow me to make yoga accessible to bodies and brains of all kinds.

When I am not at the MEG Learning Center, I am around the corner on the other side of the elevator at Re+Active Physical Therapy and Wellness Studio teaching yoga as therapy to people with neurologic conditions such as traumatic brain injuries (TBI), Parkinson’s Disease, stroke, and functional movement disorders. I am trauma certified to teach yoga to people in the TBI community through the LoveYourBrain Foundation and I have over a decade of experience tutoring/mentoring students K-PhD with and without learning differences, i.e., ADHD, dysgraphia, and dyslexia.

Remember how you are the observer of your thoughts, not the thoughts themselves? Now that you have given yourself permission to release your Self from consuming thoughts, I’ll walk you through my methods of what I call Executive Functions Yoga.

What is Executive Functions Yoga?

Yoga and meditation provide the vehicle to teach students self-regulation strategies. Human brains have their own self-governing system called executive functions. This is where your abilities to organize (e.g., set goals and initiate tasks) and problem solve (e.g., reflect and self-evaluate) are housed. For example, when you drive a car, you must recruit from your executive functions: Remember where you’re going while handling obstacles (working memory), focus attention and quickly discern information about oncoming vehicles (processing speed), determine the order of engaging the turn signal and check over your shoulder to see if the coast is clear before changing lanes (prioritizing), manage road rage (emotional regulation), and create strategies for arriving to your destination if your original route is thwarted by construction traffic (planning).

Executive function strategies can be tough to teach because they must first be brought to the forefront of your awareness. Enter yoga, stage left. This is the exciting part: While there has been burgeoning research that unites neuroscience and yoga, the following program is unique in that it is not being offered to this age group as explicit executive function coping strategies couched in yoga and meditation.

In my Yoga-Talk-Reflect Model, sessions begin with 50 minutes of yoga to release stuck or excessive energy and 10 minutes of guided meditation to nurture the nervous system into a place of ease and receptivity. The next 20 minutes are dedicated to interactive dialogue and explicit executive function coping strategies, e.g., shifting mindsets and attitudes, monitoring attention, handling obstacles and distractions. Each coping strategy will be explored over two sessions to include both the yang and yin aspects of the physical yoga practice. Yang yoga, or power flow, utilizes muscles and bones for stability and strength. Yin yoga, or restorative yoga, draws upon tissues and organs for mobility and flexibility.

Why does my child need EF Yoga?

Executive Function (EF) Yoga is customizable for each student and will include the following trajectory:

  • Heightened awareness of habits. Many habits operate outside of our conscious awareness, which makes them difficult to break and change. Does your child remove themselves from external distractions or do they tend to multi-task?

    • “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein
  • Enjoy the journey. Yoga and meditation require you to be here, now, and present, rather than mentally augmenting your to-do list and thinking about the latest social media photo filter. Despite our results-oriented society, EF Yoga teaches how to shift focus to enjoy the process of learning.

    • “Remember, it doesn’t matter how deep into a posture you go – what does matter is who you are when you get there.” – Max Strom
  • Systemic awareness. Basic anatomy exploration allows students to recognize their physiological connectivity: When I rotate my shoulders externally, I have better posture, and when I have better posture, I have more lung capacity to breathe and express myself. This smoothly transcends into the ways we recognize psychological systems: When I remove clutter from my desk, my thoughts flow more easily, and when my thoughts are flowy, I am more likely to think outside the box when I do my pre-calculus homework.

    • “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” – Norman Doidge
  • Kids who need self-empowerment to believe that their executive functions can, in fact, improve.

    • “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Maya Angelou

Who will benefit?

Individual and small group yoga sessions improve self-confidence and interpersonal relationships. Students will anatomically increase the thickness and neuron connectivity in their brain’s areas for empathy, attentiveness, focus, memory, self-awareness, and decision-making. EF yoga is ideal for:

  • Curious students who need to experience concepts in their body and move them around at their own pace.
  • Stressed students who need to experience the transformative power of feeling safe.
  • Anxious and/or depressed students who need to break the tyranny of negative thought patterns.
  • Sleep deprived students who need to settle their brains to combat fatigue and improve overall sleep quality.

You are the observer of your thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. I hope you have benefited from reading this newsletter as much as I enjoyed writing it. I look forward to seeing you in the MEG Learning Center. I’ll be the one without shoes and with a wide smile!

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