Keeping the Body in Mind


A few weeks ago, we wrote a blog about resilience, referencing a fascinating set of studies that link resilience with body awareness. In that research, subjects who were more aware of their bodies could sense when they were becoming stressed and put in place strategies or correct behavior before the stress overwhelmed them; those who were less physically aware let the stress build up until they stopped functioning.

To us, this is one more compelling reason to re-think PE in school. Instead of the traditional view of PE as a "nice to have," a time to "get your energy out," we believe that developing body awareness and a deeply ingrained sense of good health is one of the most important learning experiences for adolescents.

Our approach to PE begins by increasing the connection to our bodies. In Silicon Valley terms, we aim to increase the bandwidth of sensory information we receive from our bodies. Recognizing how you feel after eating a good meal slowly, versus inhaling an ice cream; recognizing how you feel after running; noticing the different qualities of concentration if you've slept 4 hours versus 8 hours the night before; recognizing how your breathing changes when you're stressed, and how much a deep breath can reset your emotions. All of these "noticings" start giving kids a visceral sense of what it feels like to be healthy, in a way that is unique to their body and their personal experience. 

Over time, this greater bandwidth supports the development of better judgment. If I noticed that staying up late one night hurt my performance the next day, how do I change my behavior the next time? If I can sense what's happening in this moment - for example, when I think about a project I'm working on, I feel queasy in my stomach and take shallow breaths - then I know I need to address the anxiety before I can be productive. All of this is a way of accessing the information and intuition that we all have available to us. It moves us beyond the "Brains on a stick" approach to education, to use Ken Wilber's memorable term.  

How does this look in practice? We're integrating practices like yoga and aikido, and designing a core "Somatics" course to teach students about their bodies and to foster their physical intelligence. We'll draw on this both to explore traditional sports, like basketball and soccer, and possibly to explore more uncommon sports that place a particular value on concentration and awareness, like fencing.

The research basis for this work runs deep. Larry Steinberg, one of the gurus of adolescent development and the author of the book "Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence," argues that "If schools devoted one hour each day to physical activity, our children and adolescents would not only be physically healthier, they would have stronger self-control as well, and that, in turn, will facilitate learning and achievement." In particular, "Activities that combine a challenging physical activity with mindfulness, such as yoga or certain martial arts, like tae kwon do, also appear to strengthen the development of probably isn’t the physical component of these activities alone that improves self-regulation, but the combination of exercise and the mindfulness and self-discipline required to perform these activities well."

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