How taking a few breaths can improve life in the classroom

Jewish educator Yali Szulanski incorporates breathing exercises, movement and meditation in her teaching


When she was 24, Yali Szulanski started taking boxing classes. It may not have been a conventional form of training for a Jewish educator but it helped her find her pedagogic path.

The Israeli-born New Yorker will be one of the presenters at the Limmud Festival later this month, where she will demonstrate her holistic approach to education which integrates breathing, movement and creative expression into the classroom, including for Jewish studies.

At a time when schools are paying greater attention to wellbeing, it is an approach that chimes with the times.

Now in her mid-30s, she is youth director at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the community led for many years by one of American Jewry’s most innovative rabbis, Avi Weiss, the founder of Open Orthodoxy. In autumn, she started a four-year rabbinics course at Yeshivah Maharat, the pioneering academy launched by Rabbi Weiss to enable women to study for semichah.

Though the Orthodox establishment continues to withhold its blessing from women’s ordination, YM alumni are nevertheless making their mark on the wider Jewish world.

Explaining why she took up boxing, she says, “In my early adolescence I experienced a couple of traumatic events that I didn’t know how to deal with at the time. It took me a very long time to get to a point where I could even speak about them.

“I realised very quickly through the help of an excellent therapist that the trauma was not just something that happened to me intellectually, it was something that affected every part of me. So I started exploring what are the ways of healing that exist in the world. Something that really appeals to me is physical movement.”

A keen runner, she discovered how effective boxing was “in channelling and accessing very intense emotions”.

She began to experiment with different breathing techniques and at the same time one of her boxing instructors “introduced me to meditation and I deeply connected with this idea of creating space for oneself”. Having tried various meditation forms, she likes best “moving meditation —walking, running with mindful breathing is where I find my peace now”.

A psychology graduate, she began working as a tutor, applying some of the practices she was using in her own life. Through word of mouth, she gained a reputation of being especially good with children who were “having a hard time at school”.

She brought in meditation and movement, “allowing them to change the way that their learning was happening” and also writing and other forms of expression.

“I had one student who was a singer so she would sing at the beginning of every session to get her in the mindset. I noticed a remarkable change in the students that I was working with. Not only were they doing better in school but they were also calmer, more centred. Their parents were reporting back to me that they were happier people in general.”

After a while, she was interested to see if she could translate her methods into a classroom setting. Taking a master’s degree in psychology and education, she studied how the body works and began to develop “different tools that would regulate nervous reactions”.

“I always practise on myself first and when I see it has an effect, I bring it to the classroom,” she says. “More often than not, the students report back to me they are amazed at how they can make their heartrate lower when they are feeling very anxious or they can release anger without yelling or hitting or screaming”.

Over the course of her career, her clientele has included students coming out of drug rehabilitation programmes and she visited earthquake-hit Haiti to help with a school there.
It was while a graduate student that she began adapting her ideas for a Jewish setting; she was an assistant Jewish studies teacher at the time.

She was becoming more religious herself, having met her husband, who was from a more observant background — “a parallel universe” to her until then. “I knew about the holidays and kept certain things, my mother lit Shabbat candles. But the magic of halachah… was not something I knew. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn and immerse myself in it.”

She looked into Jewish meditation practices and began using textual sources to support her teaching. She has one session, for example, called “tactics of the Talmud” on how to formulate an argument.

In talking about the heroes of the Bible, she will remind her pupils “these were people and these people had emotions just like you. How do you think Yosef felt at the bottom of the pit? Put yourself at the bottom of the pit. Now use a tool to calm yourself down.”

Prayer, for her, is “a very meditative place. But for kids, especially in the school I worked with — a non-denominational Jewish school where you had all sorts of levels of observance — tefillah was always a struggle. You had three or four kids who really had a tefillah practice, then five who weren’t observant at all. So I started playing with what it meant to personalise tefillah.

“Without deviating from the text at all, I would bring in different ways they could connect. Usually what worked the best was connecting personally with what they were saying. First of all, we would learn the tefillot and what they mean and where they come from. And then I would add on a layer — where do you think this came from emotionally for the people who wrote it.”

Her methods are based on the belief that education should have a four-fold aim, addressing not only the intellect but the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of a person too — mind, body, heart and spirit. “I believe if we are able to tend to all four,” she says, “then we will live a well-rounded and wholehearted life.”

The Limmud Festival runs from December 24 to 28. Tickets are available from, with a special JC discount code 5M9YKV

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