Does gymnastics have the same mental health benefits as yoga or meditation?

Alba, Y9, looks at how gymnastics may help relieve academic stress and help you excel in other subjects.

When we think of calming meditation, most of us will probably jump to mindfulness. In our stressful and busy lives, meditation and mindfulness are becoming increasingly popular. However, is there a right or wrong way to meditate, and can some sports such as gymnastics be classified as a sort of meditation? In fact, gymnastics is a form of focused movement meditation, and that ultimately it is beneficial to your mental health and as such has a potential positive impact on academic results.

What is focused meditation?

Focused meditation is when you concentrate on your five senses. Many people start by focusing on their breath. It sounds easy, but it is surprisingly difficult to think about just one thing, without your mind wondering and getting distracted.

However, being able to focus is a key attribute for success in life, and it’s a skill that we ideally need. Having considered on one of the senses like your breathing, a wider number of senses can be thought about.

But how does gymnastics compare to this?

Before moving, a gymnast must get into the right frame of mind to execute the move with skill. They must be focussed on themselves, and what they are about to do, and not be distracted. In a routine, you always think about the skill you are currently doing, and not what’s coming next. You are therefore being mindful and focussed on yourself in the present time. This can benefit your academic studies, because, just like mindfulness, it clears your brain so you can learn the next day with an open and more relaxed and focussed mind.

What is movement meditation?

Movement meditation helps connect your mind to your body through actions. The most common practice of this is yoga. Again, your focus is the mind. People who do not like sitting still may prefer this method, and it’s ideal when you are feeling energetic.

How does this happen in Gymnastics?

Tumbling in gymnastics is generating power and executing a sequence of flips and moves. This requires you to be aware of what your body’s doing and think about using muscles you may not otherwise use. As such, the movement becomes the focus, allowing all other thoughts to be shut out, focusing on the present and immediate.

Why should you try gymnastics, and why should it be considered a form of meditation?

Some studies[1] show that mindfulness is great, but if you struggle to do it, it can make you potentially more anxious. They also show that movement meditation like yoga can be more effective for people in stressful situations, or for people who are used to more active lifestyles. It explains why one of the reasons scientists like mindfulness – it is a cognitive method.

Personally, I prefer gymnastics to mindfulness, because I find it hard to keep still when sitting and just thinking about your breath. I enjoy the element of fear/excitement of trying a new skill. After doing gymnastics I feel a lot calmer and ready to study and learn.

I would argue that, although not a standard form of meditation, gymnastics offers benefits for stress relief and utilises skills and techniques such as focus which can help you excel in other subjects. We should have a wider view on what is meditation, and what can help us through the stresses of life.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201604/incredible-alternative-mindfulness-you-never-heard

Why using your five senses is the key to practising mindfulness at school – 19/10/18

Lucy (Year 8) looks at how our senses can be used to help us to practise mindfulness within the school day and the potential benefits this can have on our overall mental health and wellbeing.

The word mindfulness can conjure up an image of a class doing yoga or meditating.  But its key essence is about deliberately bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. It is about turning ourselves off autopilot, and noticing our present being. In the life of a busy Wimbledon High girl, this can be a challenging and daunting prospect. Focusing on our five senses will bring us into the ‘here and now’, and might be the crucial tool for dealing with stressful and anxiety inducing situations.

The senses are how we understand the world, and to obtain the most positive experience from the present moment we need to employ them in everything we do. Studies by Dr. Patrizia Collard (Sensory Awareness Mindfulness Training in Coaching: Accepting Life’s Challenges, Collard & Walsh, 2008) demonstrate that focussing on our senses, and non-judgementally on our current situation, results in a significant improvement in a range of conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress disorders.

A simple mindfulness exercise that could be practiced during the day at school, and without the use of a yoga mat, is the 5-4-3-2-1 tool. This exercise is an effective method of regaining control of your mind when anxiety or stress threaten to take over and reminds us to interact with the world using our five senses. It requires you to think of five things that you can see (e.g. a picture on a classroom wall).  Then you think of 4 things that you hear (e.g. the orchestra rehearsing in the Senior Hall), three things you can touch (e.g. your earrings), two things you smell (e.g. tea or coffee) and one thing you can taste (e.g. breaktime snacks).  This exercise can help you become more aware of your present situation and reduce potential stress.

Good mental health is something we should all aim for, and psychologists around the world are investigating ways to maintain a consistent level of positive mental health. Using our five senses and practicing mindfulness can help us be resilient when going through a time of stress and help keep us grounded in reality. Learning to focus on the external factors present around us helps avoid excessive focus on internal issues and can moderate extremes of feeling or emotion. Consistency and balance are crucial when aspiring to have good mental health.

However, mindfulness should not be a tool reserved only for stressful situations. Just like training for a sport, mindfulness needs to be practiced and developed to make it the most effective it can be.  Using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique and your five senses are a simple way of practicing mindfulness because you do not need equipment, a long time, or any external help. Our body has the tools we need to master mindfulness, we just need to trust them and exercise them.

For further reading, see the book “How to be yourself” by Clinical Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen (buy it here for a paper by Harvard Medical School about the benefits mindfulness has on stress and anxiety levels.

The importance of reading and the library – 12/10/18

Isabelle, Year 8, argues how critical reading is as a pastime whilst also discussing how libraries provide a great space to read and a wonderful source of information.

“Reading is a window to the world.”

Whilst the word ‘power’ has for a long time been associated with muscular strength, the word ‘knowledge’ has always been connected with the mind. The two words do not seem to have any connection whatsoever. However, today the world power has undergone a tremendous transformation. Today it is commonly recognised that the pen is mightier than the sword.

We are now living in a time where there are many information sources, such as the Internet leading to some older information sources now becoming increasingly extinct. However, books will always be alive; nothing can beat how you are able to immerse yourself into the story, nothing can replace the comfortable feeling of books. As J.K Rowling said: “I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book”.

Reading is a useful pastime because people can learn a lot. We can learn many important and useful facts and improve our understanding of English language too. We can cultivate the habit by reading small books at first and after that we can read bigger and more advanced books. In addition to books we can also read newspapers. Books are a way that we can easily communicate our ideas and keep them safe. If people read, they will also get new ideas and then they can use these to develop the world.

I remember receiving my first library card: the power granted – the exhilaration as the red light of the checkout scanner christened the book – my book. It is great that we have a student library as I, like many others, think libraries are essential. One reason is because they offer educational resources to everyone. Anyone can use libraries to succeed and have the answers to curious minds. Secondly, they preserve history and truth and the preservation of truth is important, now more than ever. Libraries, which house centuries of learning, information and history are important while we fight against fake news.

Imagine a place where all of us feel welcome and encouraged to grow and learn. That space is the school library. School libraries provide more than just books, computers and other technology, databases of accurate information, e-books, plus fun and educational activities. School libraries provide a safe haven for all of us to think, create, share, and grow. School libraries can be the hub of learning and the favourite spot for many students.

Strong Silences

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Suzanne East, mindfulness lead at Wimbledon High considers the benefits and the challenges of delivering strong silences to students.

At the start of the Autumn term this year we introduced Strong Silences across the school as a positive and calming way to start the school day.  There was, and continues to be, a mixed reaction from both staff and students as to the benefits of this exercise. I suspect that at the start of a busy day it is one activity that often gets forgotten or postponed.  However, I would like to take this opportunity to speak out in favour of trying a little harder, both for ourselves and for our students and give strong silences another go.

Lack of time is the most frequent reason I hear given as to why people get out the habit of practising any mindful meditations. In such busy times we have to prioritise our to-do lists and time spent seemingly doing nothing can be hard to justify.  So what exactly is the intention of a strong silence and what benefits can it offer?

During a short mindfulness practice, such as a strong silence, we exercise a level of self-discipline in stopping our usual busyness and directing our attention elsewhere.  Rather than emptying the mind the aim is to focus on our actual lived reality, perhaps on the movement of the breath, the noises of our surroundings or the physical sensations of the floor and the chair beneath us.  This is difficult to achieve, but we know that we can train the brain in such behaviours and, like any exercise, focussing the mind becomes easier with practice.  As teachers we know that being able to maintain focus on the task in hand is a vital skill that all children need to learn if they are to work and perform to their maximum.  We are frequently warned that modern technologies provide constant interruptions and the brain is always attracted to novelty.  Any practice that can help our students to maintain focus in this sparkly and noisy world must be a vital life skill.

Being able to step back from difficult and demanding tasks can also improve over-all performance on these tasks.  It is often when we allow our mind to focus on a totally different task that creative solutions seem to appear to us.  What we are actually doing here is allowing our brain to look at the bigger picture and see what may elude us when we are too deeply engrossed in a task.  It is often in the shower, or when we are happily drifting off to sleep that our best ideas arise. There are many studies that suggest successful individuals build in renewal phases to their working strategies and that this can build cognitive abilities1.  Encouraging and reminding our students that they need to stop regularly when revising or writing essays can help them to avoid the frustration and burn out that can occur when they try to force themselves to work too long.

There is also a lot to be said for the simple power of silence itself.  In our lives we are constantly under pressure to perform, our opinions are sought and questions are asked; we feel ourselves as being judged by friends, families and those who have authority over us.  With age, most of us are able to build an inner confidence and ability to trust our own values and instincts, but this is a difficult skill for teenagers whose prefrontally cortex-challenged brains and hyper-sensitive amagdala’s are all too quick to tell them that they are social failures.  A strong silence is a time to sit quietly with yourself, time-in as author Daniel Siegel2 put it in his book Brainstorm, the power and purpose of the teenage brain. To stop telling, showing, explaining, reacting and to just be.

So strong silences have a lot to offer and teach our students about how they can take control of their lives and responses to the challenges that they may encounter.  They do not need to take long, they do not need cushions, blankets and uncomfortable postures and could be slotted into our daily routines as an example of how we balance the activities of our day and cater for all of our needs, physical, spiritual and mental. However, one real concern that I do still have is that strong silences delivered without real engagement from teachers could leave students dwelling on negative thoughts, worrying and feeling isolated.  We cannot teach these techniques without developing our own practice and understanding the different experiences that can result.  Ideally students need to follow a course such as the MiSP’s .b or paws b3 that gives the students the context and framework of mindfulness from which they can then develop their own practice.  A strong silence is a powerful tool to add to a day’s routine, but it needs to be nurtured and cared for if it is to really offer these benefits.

1) Chiesa, A., Calati, R., & Serretti, A. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities?  A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical psychology review, 31 (3), 449-464.

2) Siegel , D.J (2011) Mindsight Practice A: Time-In.  In: Brainstorm, the power and purpose of the teenage brain p282-3. Scribe Publications.

3) Mindfulness in Schools Project various articles on the benefits of their mindful curricula https://mindfulnessinschools.org/research/

Twitter: @DH_Pastoral

Mindful revision: how to make the best of the revision period

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As mock exams start, Suzanne East, our Mindfulness Lead, looks at how we can manage the pressures of examination revision to achieve our best and stay healthy.

As the Christmas holidays approached and the festivities were beginning to get into full swing, I wished my Y11 tutor group Merry Christmas and asked how they were planning on spending the holiday period; “revision”, they groaned in reply. In their eyes was written the despair at the prospect of sitting alone in garret-like bedrooms struggling with never-ending lists of dates whilst the sounds of forbidden parties drifted up to torment them.

Faced with this, I sought ways to encourage them, and found that mindful practise offered some practical suggestions. So here are my top five tips on how to survive revision, especially revision during the holiday period, in a most mindful way!

  1. Acceptance

At the end of the day, it is what it is and you will not feel any happier by constantly thinking of other things you could be doing. Being constantly updated on the fun that others are having will not help, so put the device away and get on with it!

  1. Focus

Mindful practice encourages you to bring the focus of your attention back to a chosen point, perhaps the breath. We all get distracted but we can improve our attention with regular practice – a vital skill in completing any task! Remember to be kind (you will not be able to focus all the time) but notice the drifting away of attention and gently bring it back to the job in hand.

  1. Self-awareness

Away from the routines of school this is a time when students may be alone for long periods and need to take responsibility for their own care. Mindful practice encourages paying attention to yourself, how are you feeling physically, mentally and emotionally. By getting to know yourself you can make sure you stop and eat when hungry, get some exercise when sluggish and meet up with friends when feeling lonely.

  1. Savouring the good

It is easy to let revision seep into all aspects of the day. Even when not actually doing revision it can hijack your thoughts; regretting not doing more or dreading going back.  Mindfulness practice teaches how to be fully in the moment, so if you are doing some revision, pay attention and do it, but equally when you are having a break really have a break. Immerse yourself in a long soak in the bath, enjoy chatting with your friends when you meet up for coffee, savour that chocolate and get out and be in the world that is buzzing away with life all around you.

  1. Kindness

Remember mocks are a practice run. Things will not always go to plan, and this is almost certainly true of revision plans. Mindful practice encourages students to explore areas of difficulty and to accept that life can make you feel sad, angry and frustrated. No one likes to feel like this, but these are feelings we cannot escape from. Get to know them and learn how you can move forward, being as kind and supportive to yourself as you would to a good friend.

Of course, none of the above come easily.  Regular practice is essential in building mindful habits, but the rewards can be quite life changing, especially when the going gets tough.

Follow @DHPastoralWHS for regular Pastoral updates at Wimbledon High.