In the first of a series of 30 day challenges to see if an old dog can be taught new tricks, Brad Kelly came to yoga looking for more flexibility and strength. Instead, he discovered breath, what really matters in learning and the power of finishing.
It’s a Christmas miracle!
This morning, I completed 30 Days of Yoga with Adrienne as part of a professional commitment to show up to learn every day and a personal commitment to live less in my head and more in my body.
And while it will come as no surprise to those who know me well that I lacked the grace and ease of Adrienne’s transitions to and from downward facing dog, I wanted to explore the benefits of breath and movement in a world that is riddled with noise.
So, I ‘came to the mat’, committed to thirty days, and entered the foreign world of downward facing dogs, cobras and cat cows, and what I learned, to paraphrase Dylan Wiliam, was totally unpredictable.
What’s worth learning?
Exactly what place yoga has on an education blog should require little explanation in a world that celebrates lifelong learning. But, it does.
While PISA scores grab the headlines, it is much more difficult to measure what Guy Claxton calls the dispositions of learners: imagination, absorption, the ability to reflect, be stickable, to notice, ask questions, resourcefulness, self-knowledge, playfulness, collaboration and listening.
While the 3rs rightfully enjoy the literacy and numeracy foundations of learning, taking learning into a lifelong pursuit requires what Bob Bjork calls desirable difficulties, with the persistence, consistency and learning disposition to do hard things.
It was in this spirit of curiosity – and what’s worth learning – that I joined Adrienne Mishler, the YouTube sensation that shot to fame during the pandemic.
And while the benefits of stretching, movement and meditation were obvious, the twin benefits of the power of breath and consistency offered powerful lessons in learning and life.
Like most people, I took little notice of the 22,000 breaths I inhaled each day, handing full respiratory responsibility to the autonomic nervous system to think about breathing.
That was a mistake.
How we breathe matters, at least to the tiny cells in the base of our lungs that rarely get the benefit of a full breath of oxygen.
As a self-confessed shallow breather, one month later, I’m a convert to breathing.
Who knew that oxygen was nature’s perfect blend for stress relief? Not me.
I learned that taking a deep breathe gives immediate relief from anxiety, triggering an autonomic response that lowers the heart rate, slows the brain, expels carbon dioxide and reduces anxiety.
Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman talks about the physiological sigh, “a double inhale, followed by an extended exhale,” to bring stress levels down immediately.
I thought about the benefits of breath for myself and those around me who often learn life’s most important lessons on the fly; a friend facing a shock cancer diagnosis; another living with the wounds of a half-healed decade-old divorce; another dealing with a difficult parenting situation; the disappointment at the end of a relationship. I wondered what the benefit of breathing would be to calm the worries and ground one back into the present?
At first, I couldn’t see what all the breathing fuss was about. “Find your breath,” Adrienne would whisper and I’d mentally respond “Let’s just get to the stretching.”
But by day five, I was becoming more aware of my breath. By day ten I was using breath to combat general stress; and by day 21, my anxiety levels had fallen like a stone and I was using breath to mute anxiety in real time.
The little shot of oxygen has been my biggest learning insight and a gamechanger.
I spoke to friend, poet and political commentor Kim Wingerei a devotee who has spent years setting up his day with yoga about his own experiences with the ancient art.
“I use the ‘Five Tibetans’ – a set of very simple movements that work on flexibility and core strength… I do them most mornings and find it eliminates back pain, but is also an effective morning meditation,” he said.
“And I’m of course incredibly lucky to be able to do it outside my Bali abode, on a terrace overlooking the pool and the creek below, all shrouded in lush tropical flora with the attendant sound effects of chirpy birds, buzzing insects, croaky frogs and geckos,” he says.
Consistency over intensity
Finishing 30 days provided an insight into the limits of motivation and the magic of consistency. After three days, I wondered if I should move the challenge to the trash folder.
But showing up every day demonstrate why motivation is so often a happy bed fellow with procrastination. We need motivation to start any new learning. Motivation is the imagination into what is possible. But motivation is limited; it kicks over the engine, but it is consistency that finishes the journey. In a funny sort of circular logic, consistency is the fuel for motivation.
How many of us have unfinished projects sitting on the shelf? It is finishing that matters.
In the words of Alex Beard, the world doesn’t belong to the know-it-all’s – it belongs to the learn-it-all’s. As we move into the brave new world of AI, the dispositions of the learner will become more important: curiosity, creativity, stickability and focus may just be central to learning.
30 days of Yoga provided more proof, following Claxton’s excellent book Intelligence in the Flesh, that our brain needs our body more than it thinks.
Join Brad Kelly for How We Learn – coming soon in 2024.