Teaching Embodied, Mindfulness-Based, Emotional Resilience in School

This article is an introduction to my work with PreK-12 students, parents, and educators. My work is grounded in trauma-sensitive yoga pedagogy & praxis, neuroscience, and polyvagal theory upon which I’ve built a school-based curriculum, The Way We BE Together. Below you’ll find a bit of theory, some practice, things I wish I’d have known, as well as some of the joys I encounter. At the end you’ll find stories of positive experiences from the community.

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Over the last year and a half I’ve introduced students and educators in preschool through eighth grade to the concepts of resilience, mindful awareness, neuroscience, and polyvagal theory. We’ve put these concepts into practice and have experienced growth not only in self and social awareness, but also in self-expression, communication, and wise choice-making about what we decide to think, say, and do.

The glowing embers of empathy, compassion, generosity, kindness, and gratitude that were left after years of pandemic schooling have rekindled. And in the new light we are cultivating the physiological balance and mental clarity to engage with our emotions not as though they were dictators of our behavior, but as the messengers of information and self-awareness they are.

After learning about the window of tolerance and the hand model of the brain, students and educators now share a language that allows us to communicate more clearly and understand more accurately “what’s going on for us.” In other words, we understand what we’re feeling, why we’re feeling it, and how to express it. We know the ways in which our internal & external environments affect our nervous system, trigger our thoughts, and activate our emotions. We can more easily describe our nervous system state (with words, metaphors, and gestures), what’s happening in our brain during that particular state, and what we’re going to do or not do about what we’re experiencing. We’re also acknowledging when we need help, asking for that assistance, and then accepting the kindness, compassion, and generosity of our classmates, teachers, colleagues, and friends.

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We have lots of different ways to release energy, create a sense of safety in the body, and shift into a balanced nervous system that feels at ease and able to engage with others. To access this state at the beginning of class, children in preschool through fifth grade practice a spoken word movement poem called the Resilience Song:

Hands on my head, hands up high
Hands on my heart, hands out wide.

I can twist, I can bend
I can be myself again.

Like a mountain, like a tree
Strong & steady, being me.

– Amy Secrist

The movements go along with the words: Everyone brings their hands to the top of their head (sometimes tapping their fingers like little rain drops to help wake up the nervous system), then stretches their arms up to the sky. We rest our hands on our chest to connect with our heart beat, then open our arms to the side. We twist in both directions, and then everyone chooses to either bend forward in a classic back body stretch or to the right and left in a crescent shape, opening the sides of the torso. We choose based on what we want to feel and our comfort level considering who is around or behind us. We come back to hands on heart/chest embodying physical resilience. Following the words, we move through mountain shape (feet as wide as hips or wider with fingertips touching overhead), into tree shape (feet together and arms in upward “V”), and then into a shallow squat with arms and fists in a classic “flex” posture to engage the biceps, triceps, pectoralis, quadriceps, and hamstrings before returning to hands on heart. We usually cap this with a couple of yummy self-hugs beginning with arms wide to inhale, arms crossing the torso to exhale with sound (“Mm, mmm, mmmm”). We vary the arm position and add some rocking or twisting motions on the exhale, as well.

Younger students call the balanced nervous system state “Rested & Ready,” and the Jr High students like to use the phrase “Calm & Connected” to refer to an integrated and harmonized brain state. Both names describe a central nervous system that is settled, centered, calm, and alert, “rested and ready to work, learn, and play.” In this state students can focus on individual tasks or work with others in small and large groups. In short, the students experience this state as feeling safe and relaxed, able to connect with themselves and their classmates.

The Jr. High students are more reserved and “locked-in” to their older routines and habits that have served to protect and keep them safe over the years. So, no 7th and 8th graders really want to do the resilience song with me, and they are right to be skeptical. However, they do appreciate the brain and nervous system science, and when we talk about creating a sense of safety in the body they are willing to try variations of the basic exercises offered by Stanley Rosenberg. In short, we practice eye movements, turning the head, turning the torso, fuller twists around the navel, and then we add some squeeze and release, followed by shake, shake, shake (an opportunity to shake out the hands and wrists, arms, legs, feet, and anything else that feels right).

When I say “willing to try,” what I mean is that the students are willing to tell me whether or not the practices work for them. I ask them to please try things out, as if they are scientists or experimenters, and give me their honest feedback. No one is expected to like everything I offer, nor is anyone required to give “the right answers” to my inquiries, because there aren’t any answers that I’m looking for. I’m learning every single class period what works, what doesn’t, what can and what can’t. The students teach me every single day. And I’m doing everything I can think of to create an environment of safety and bravery, to foster a sense of agency in the students, to hold space for them – no matter how young they are – to discover, learn, and embrace self-inquiry and then to trust that deep inner voice of their own truest knowing.

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One thing I wish I’d have known going in was that some classrooms will have a higher concentration of dysregulated nervous systems than others, much higher. And that this was not something I could just throw some regulating practices at and hope they worked. I had to speak with individual students, individual teachers throughout the school, get to know and understand the varied reasons for dysregulation, and then try out some practices. My expectations were something like, “everything will work at least a little bit, right?” I laugh at this now. The answer is “No, no, not everything will work a little bit.”

One brief example is the difference between lying on the floor to practice a body scan versus remaining seated and resting the head on the desk. Floor work is best offered to a group of students who have cultivated self-awareness, focus, and self-management skills. Another example is sharing in a large circle versus sharing in two smaller circles. The large circle sharing time necessarily takes longer, and if the group is not skilled in patience and self-regulation, it’s going to fall apart without a break time worked in. Even if something might work for a single student in a one-on-one session, that doesn’t mean it will work for that same student when they are surrounded by 22 other nervous systems. And what works beautifully one day, like mindfully listening to the rain stick, might not work at all the next. For these classrooms there is a lot of brainstorming, discussion, experimenting, and reassessing.

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One of the biggest joys of this work has been the inspiration and the student engagement and growth. So much of my curriculum is inspired by the students themselves. The resilience song described above was inspired in my first week by a preschool student who likes large motor activities and who was chronically tired. She loved dancing and jumping and rhyming. So, we created some rhymes and some movements and strung them together. She is still inspiring me.

The other huge joy is hearing how students are growing into freedom, which is at the core of this work. When students run up to share with me how they “Rolled With It” instead of “freaking out,” we all celebrate. When a student tells me how they were able to choose to walk away instead of scream at their classmates, we fist-bump and cheer. And when teachers tell me how the breathing practices reset the entire classroom vibration, we breathe a sigh of relief together. I have countless success stories tucked away in my email folders and survey responses from students, parents, teachers, and administrators, and each of them makes me smile and connect to my heart’s deepest calling – to walk with others in freedom.

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Experiences & Feedback

I have received positive feedback from students, teachers, colleagues, administrators and parents. Below are a few kind words that speak to the power of the EMBER practices I have learned from my own teachers, grown from, built on, and shared. To learn more about EMBER, please visit emberyoga.org

“I wanted to write to express my gratitude for the thoughtful practices you are teaching the students…, especially my own–…(K) and (4th). Each morning when they have your class, they will announce “it’s my day with Miss Amy!” and when they come home they are quick to show my husband and me what they are learning.

Most importantly, however, they apply their learning often in real world situations from the mundane–what were fights between siblings have turned into moments of mountain breathing–to the powerful–when they lost their grandmother two weeks ago, [My fourth grader] told me that when she became overwhelmed she would stand barefoot and focus on wiggling her toes to help her refocus on the present. They impressed their pediatrician with their knowledge of the different parts and functions of the brain, and they taught the nurse practitioner hot cocoa and balloon breath as they used both to calm down before receiving their COVID vaccine. 

In a time when so much of their socioemotional learning has been stunted by the unprecedented challenges of living through a pandemic, I am so grateful for the ways in which you have not only been able to increase their self and social awareness, self-regulation, relationship skills, and decision-making, but also for including us parents in their learning by sharing tools that, in combination with our faith, strengthen the resilience of our family.” 

– Dr. C. Parente, parent and professor

“This is my daughter’s first year in Montessori school.  Every week when opening her take home folder I couldn’t help but look at the [Social Emotional Learning & Resilience] papers coming home in total confusion.  What is she learning about the brain? What do these papers mean? Does my 3 year old understand this?

Then I was lucky enough to volunteer for snack mom.  I walked in as Miss Amy was talking to the students. It was a lesson about the brain and emotions. She took the time to prepare a craft for the class.  It was a jar full of liquid, glitter, and beads.  It was colorful and had all of the kids’ attention.  All the little bottoms were placed firmly on the floor as they watched in amazement as the bottle was shaken and became colorful with many moving parts inside.

She asked the class if they had ever felt a lot of emotions at once.  She talked about how it felt to be all jumbled up and [shared] exercises to help bring yourself back…to thinking clearly.  That moment there it all clicked for me as a parent.  The worksheets coming home might have a lot of wording on them, but Miss Amy knows how to break it down and approach children. 

On another occasion as snack helper Miss Amy happened to have a lesson. This class was about the “Window of Tolerance” and how when our windows are [open] we have a higher level of tolerance. She explained things that make our window bigger, [such as] eating right, doing nice things for others, sharing love. Those are things that [open] our window. She explained the importance of having a big window of tolerance so things aren’t annoying.  

She went around the room, each little learner holding the talking stick and speaking for their turn.  Each child gave an adequate example of a time their window was big and open (a happy example) or a time when their window was tiny and closed (a time they were upset).  

The children all understood and gave real examples, typically times when someone was bothering them and when mom or dad stepped in to help and made their window REALLY BIG AGAIN!!! 

It’s a privilege to be able to peek into these little lessons that teach our little ones such BIG things.  

Now every time a paper comes home in my daughter’s folder I just smile, I know under all the neurological jargon there was an amazing lesson teaching our children how to be patient, kind, and in control of their big emotions!”

– Parent of Montessori preschool student

“The students can [now] be redirected and use some of the strategies that they know. We have a common language and strategies that we can use [and] students are able to self regulate more…. [They] can have discussions between themselves and others when there are issues. We discuss different strategies and how we can be proactive rather than reactive.”

– Classroom Teacher

“I have had multiple parents tell me about how their students use the tools at home with success. Parents have also adopted some of the practices to the benefit of their family unit.”

_ Classroom Teacher

“[Without the resilience practices] I wouldn’t be able to stop and breathe and think about what I’m doing. I wouldn’t have any tools to help me.”

– 5th Grade Student

“I have come to the realization that I have the right to feel how I do. Another person may not agree with how I feel but it is okay for me to feel like I do. No one should tell you how you should feel.”

– Classroom Teacher

“I have heard from students, staff, parents, and administration alike how helpful this program has been. It has helped us create a sense of community and support where we take the extra time to truly talk about what is going on and what we do and don’t like about it. I personally feel that I have been able to be more honest with myself and my colleagues as a result.”

– Classroom Teacher

“I have used and applied many of the tools taught in the resiliency room this year. I use flower breath quite a lot when I’m feeling tense. I also use the balloon stress balls to fidget with when anxious or need to experience calm. My personal talks with Miss Amy have also helped me accept when I’m stressed, tired, or burnt out and apply the necessary steps to cope with these feelings. Having her help validate my own experiences and feelings was huge for me in getting through the school year.”

– Classroom Teacher

“There was a child in the hallway…who was crying. I approached this child and used the toolkit that Miss Amy printed for staff members and asked the child to point to how she was feeling. I then asked the child to choose their favorite breath from the poster. Together, we performed the breath three times and then I asked the child to choose how they were feeling. The child went from an angry face to a happy face. WIN!”

– Administrator

“[Through practicing resilience skills I’ve learned] that I don’t always have to be angry or get mad to get something I want. I can just calm down and wait.”

– 5th Grade Student

“…I’m getting better at resilience skills – I love understanding my amygdala and know that the power is in me…to be strong and steady and to do good and use the nice power in me.”

– 3rd Grade Student

“[I’ve learned] I can practice resilience. I can practice taking care of my anger.”

– 3rd Grade Student

“Taking a deep breath helps me when I make a mistake.”

1st Grade Student

“Allowing other people to encourage [me] and share positivity helps me be brave and strong.”

4th Grade Student
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The Power to Be: Trauma Sensitive Practice and the Capacity to Be Fully Alive

An Experiment

Notice if you’re feeling curious.  If you are, I invite you to try an experiment with me.  The experiment is to notice your embodied experience of language.  This means noticing your body’s response to words and phrases.  Another way to say this is noticing how words and phrases feel in your body, or, “how they land with you.”   To try this, read the short list below and repeat the words and phrases slowly, either silently in your mind or aloud, with your eyes closed or softly open, whichever feels comfortable.  Leave a small space of silence in between them so you have room to notice your experience.  As you do this, pay close attention to your body and observe any thoughts, feelings, reactions, responses, or sensations that might arise:

Do this now

You’re welcome to try this when you’re ready


Notice if you’d like to rest

Hurry up

In your own time

Thank you for trying this!  How was that for you?  Did you notice anything about this list intellectually?  Did your body notice anything about these words and phrases?  This was an experiment, so there’s no wrong or right answer.  Perhaps you observed that some phrases read like commands and some like invitations.  Maybe you felt that some words extend a sense of urgency and others a sense of open acceptance.  It’s possible you felt nothing in your body as you repeated the list, or only noticed a small response.  It’s also possible you felt quite a lot of sensation in your torso, around your chest, your ribcage, and your belly, or somewhere else altogether.  

I love that there’s no objectively right answer here, that there’s no “perfect” outside of your own experience.  Whatever your experience in this practice is, it’s the right one.  This is what trauma-sensitive practice means for me.  Observing and noticing, allowing and honoring are key aspects of this way of life, the “trauma aware” way of life. That’s what Mindfulness Based Emotional Resilience* training becomes — not a series of important looking letters after your name or a certification for you to work into your tagline — it becomes the way you move through the world.  

“Mindfulness Based Emotional Resilience 

becomes the way you move 

through the world.”

The phrases “You’re welcome to try this when you’re ready, Notice if you’d like to rest, and In your own time,” are considered trauma-sensitive because they allow for the person receiving the language to make choices, which is one of the hallmarks of trauma-sensitive work.  In this case, the choices include things like whether we will engage in the activity, as well as how we will or won’t engage in the activity.  In all forms of trauma-sensitive practice the locus of power shifts from objective to subjective, external to internal, from the institution to the person, from other people to you.  

Moving Through the World

The way I lived before my trauma training was “fairly accepting,” “sort of kind,” “pretty welcoming,” and “almost-but-not-quite non-judgmental.”   I’d been practicing yoga for about 18 years and really struggled with a lot of perfectionistic tendencies, a ton of unrealistic expectations, buckets of shame, and barrels of shoulds.  These kinds of characteristics manifest in a variety of spaces like the yoga studio, the church sanctuary, the athletic field, and the performance hall, to name a few.  And for me it’s possible they were very much nurtured by western society’s bent toward a white supremacist culture.   This almost invisible power structure doesn’t leave much room for personal nuance, subjective subtlety, or shades of brown.  People of every color are affected by it — including white people — whether we realize it or not.  But the EMBER training cuts through all of that.  Trauma-sensitivity literally carves out the room you need to flourish into who you are capable of being. And not only that, but it teaches you how to do this for others, too. 

“I am enough.  

And so are you.”

Acknowledgement, empathy, and compassion are now cornerstones of the way I move through the world.  Now I know how to make space, take space, and hold space for my own self, for the people I know and love, for those I find extraordinarily challenging, and for the people I’ve never met.  Perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, shame, and shoulds are bits of rubble I step over.  Now I notice, name, and embrace my experience in a way that is tender and welcoming instead of demanding and hostile.  Finally, I can be a yoga pose instead of “do” a yoga pose.   Finally I can set down the value-laden anvil of “being good” and  “doing it right,” and pick up the mantle of I am enough and so are you.

Being and Becoming

Trauma awareness allows us to approach ourselves and others from a place of wholeness.  This means we don’t see ourselves as incomplete, broken, or in need of fixing.  Instead we’re afforded space to view ourselves as fully functioning in relation to our circumstances both internal (our genetic makeup and nervous system function) and external (the amount of challenges we encounter in relation to our power, or access to resources and supports).  We do what works to make it through until we cultivate more skillful practices and/or create, gain, or otherwise access more power. These are the spaces in which we move from resilience to post-traumatic growth.  We can’t practice what we were never taught.  And we can’t learn what we were never given an opportunity to know.   So the philosophy of wholeness meets us where we are, with welcoming and befriending, and it allows each one of us to be who we are while supporting us to grow into who we are becoming.  


If you’d like to take a small step toward feeling fully alive (even if only for a moment), or to experience the power of just being, try this experiment with me (with your eyes open or closed): 

If you’d like, place your hand (or hands) on something solid –  your leg, the seat of your chair, the floor, or the ground, and press down with any amount of pressure that feels right.

Notice any sensations that reveal your connection to this solid thing, or to the earth.

Breathe in.  And then, breathe out.  

Now, look around your space, and notice one color that stands out to you.

If you’d like, say the name of that color out loud or silently in your mind.

Last, notice how you feel.

Thank you for trying that with me!  Perhaps you’d like to let that experience settle then investigate how it was for you, or, come back to the practice again after you’ve finished reading.  Remember, you have the power to be a witness to your own being.  You have the power to be a witness to your own becoming.  Both of these actions are happening all the time and at the same time, and any choice you make around realizing your power and becoming fully alive…?  It’s the right one. 

May you know peace, joy, and hope, 

in any amount,


The Universal Yogi

I was trained in EMBER Yoga (Mindfulness-Based Emotional Resilience) by the amazing co-creators Michele Vinbury and Marybeth Hamilton at the equally amazing Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio. The most life-changing, life-enhancing training I’ve ever experienced.