Georgia schools try new breathing exercises to help manage stress

Ten-year-old Akshay Maheshwari said he likes to help people and solve problems.

And that’s why the fifth-grader decided to undergo special training to become a peer mediator for a new, schoolwide program designed to relieve tension and stress.

Berkeley Lake Elementary School in Gwinnett County is one of about 35 schools in metro Atlanta and other parts of Georgia participating in an initiative called Georgia Breathes, which involves four simple deep breathing exercises.

Georgia Breathes will officially kick off on Tuesday, Sept. 11. The initiative calls for four breaths, practiced for a total of four minutes, for 40 consecutive school days.

“This feels like something that would be really helpful for the school,” Akshay said on a late morning recently in a training room at his school. “Sometimes when people get angry, they can do reckless things, and these breathing exercises can help people feel better.”

A growing number of small studies of children and meditation suggests the impact from meditation can be impressive, helping youngsters with everything from improving their social skills to improving their focus in school.

For teachers and administrators, breathing exercises are a powerful new skill to offer students, not only to manage stress but also to keep them from acting out and to even help with academic performance.

The four breaths in Georgia Breathes include the “Breath of Joy,” “Washing Machine,” “Wake Up Mountain” and “Lotus Breath.” The “Breath of Joy” calls for swinging arms straight out in front at shoulder height with palms up, while the “Washing Machine” incorporates twisting side to side. “Wake Up Mountain” gets students and staff up on their feet and reaching high. With “Lotus Breath,” palms come together in front of the heart, and with pinkie and thumbs side together, and the rest of the fingers away from each other to resemble a lotus flower. All the exercises focus on breathing deeply, slowly to decrease negativity and promote happiness.

The founder of Georgia Breathes is Cheryl Crawford, a longtime yoga instructor and founder of co-founder of Grounded Kids Yoga, which has been adopted by several schools in metro Atlanta. 

The idea for Georgia Breathes came to her after spending time at schools across Georgia, and sensing elevated levels of anxiety after a string of school shootings across the country.

“I was hearing teachers and students say they can’t breathe,” she said. “And it just came to me. Georgia Breathes … When you are breathing together, you are feeling that connection.”

Crawford is in discussion with local university professors to assess whether simple breathing exercises hold promise for those students, too.

She selected 9/11 as a start date for Georgia Breathes because she wanted to turn the day into a Day of Action, a way to commemorate the tragedy by bringing people together to build a more connected community.

“I want students to connect to their breath, to connect to each other in their classrooms and other classrooms throughout Georgia,” said Crawford.

MORE: The AJC’s Ultimate School Guide 

An optional tracker helps assess whether the breathing activity helps them gain energy and calm down. Crawford said she’s asking schools to do the activity for 40 days to establish the breathing activity as a habit. Counselors at Berkeley Lake Elementary School and other schools plan to monitor the program, and if deemed effective, will make Georgia Breathes a part of their daily routine throughout the year.

She’s hoping Georgia Breathes will be adopted by schools in all 159 counties. The nonprofit behind the initiative is receiving financial support from Lululemon and the United Way.

Schools participating include schools in Gwinnett County, Cobb County and DeKalb County, City of Atlanta schools and City of Decatur schools, along with schools in Savannah, Calhoun County and Chatham County and several private schools including Westminster Schools. Georgia Breathes training kits — which include peace flags from Nepal, guided instructions, and student assessments — cost $44 for schools. Financial assistance is available.

Some schools are starting by implementing the initiative in one or a small number of classes, while other schools are immediately making the program school-wide.

Georgia Breathes is also appealing because this simple intervention has effects that can stretch beyond the classroom.

Nahile Guzman, a fifth-grader, has already seen the benefits of Georgia Breathes at home. After noticing her younger sister, Brielle, who is 5, get upset while playing with Lego bricks, she gathered her younger sister and parents, and led them in a series of breathing exercises.

“I could tell everyone liked it,” she said. “It puts a peaceful mindset in people’s heads.”

The peer mediators completed 11 hours of training at the school and worked on a video presentation to be shared with students and staff to help teach the exercises.

MORE: School’s not out for summer in Georgia any longer. Should it be?

As the lunchtime gathering comes to a close, Akshay leads the group with the first breath — “Breath of Joy.” He stands tall. And with his arms up high, he takes a deep breath.

Swing your arms straight out in front at shoulder height. … With each inhalation, breathe in the joy that fills the world. Open your mouth and exhale completely with a “Ha” to clear out what doesn’t!

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