I am a big advocate for breathing. I know how silly that sounds, but I would include it in any core curriculum. Recently I have been learning about breathing as a part of my school’s chapel time. Daily chapel at St. Mary’s begins with a church bell, followed by silence, and then by an invitation “to take a moment to breathe.” In the rush of the school day, punctuated by other bells that sound more like alarms, most of the student and teachers are not mindful of their own breath until that moment.
As an Episcopal school, we celebrate our approach to inclusivity, faith, and community. We describe this often-ineffable component as the “heart” of our school mission. As the heart circulates blood, Episcopal Chapel becomes the center around which the rest of the school day flows. But that vital core does not make us immune to common maladies—stress and it symptoms being foremost among them. We can come to Chapel stressed, pause, and then pick up our anxiety on the way out, thankful for the break. But mindful breathing is something, when we learn to attend to it, that can transform the other parts of our day.
The language of stress is the language of poor breathing: coming up for air after a class, having the wind knocked out of you after bad news, catching your breath because of an exhausting schedule. How does a community that should be more familiar with the breath of life and divine inspiration learn then to breathe better?
St. Mary’s, like many other schools, is studying the practice of mindfulness. The roots of mindfulness began in many ancient religious disciplines, including meditation. Today, mindfulness for beginners often starts with learning how to “follow your breath” as a form of paying attention. It is a practice that even young children can understand as a way to connect mind and soul and body. It is most effective when learned from a sincere practioner and the least helpful if it becomes a gimmick for classroom management. Research is growing about the benefits of mindfulness and mindful schools, and our staff has learned much through some thoughtful curriculum and training.
Episcopal schools, however, have been practicing a form of mindfulness all along in our chapels. In what other school environments are students permitted and encouraged to stop, be silent, and reflect? Silence is a form of mindfulness; singing and praying are both communal activities that direct our breathing. The pleasure of working in an Episcopal school is having a place of belonging where students and adults can be mindful together and then equipped to be attentive to their health throughout the day.
Our schools have a home base and a head start on a mindfulness movement that is growing rapidly. In the hunt for the elusive expression to describe the Episcopal core of a school, I have often resorted to calling it the heart. Now as I participate in daily rhythms of Chapel that include mindful breathing, I think the more appropriate word is lungs.
Albert Throckmorton is Head of School at St. Mary's Episcopal School, Memphis, Tennessee, a girls' day school serving grades PK through 12.