Thought Leadership at SXSW EDU

In this 20-minute talk from SXSW EDU 2023, NaliniKIDS founder Rupa Mehta presents the case for leveraging intentional physical movement as the most effective entry point to emotional connection.

Full Transcript

Hi everyone my name is Rupa [and] I’m so thankful for this opportunity to be able to connect with all of you and share my talk, Exercising Emotions: Why SEL Must Be Physical.

So 20 years ago I started Fitness Studio in New York City where I taught adult clients the value of physical fitness. It came in the form of yoga, resistance training, a pilates class. But what I noticed over time is that the thing that was weighing down my clients the most was the emotional weight from the outside world showing up in the classroom and in their bodies and so what I decided to do was Infuse some emotional exercises – some reflections – throughout the physical workout, and it was really well received. A lot of my clients said I wish I had had this when I was younger and growing up and I wish my kids could experience this. And so I started a non-profit called NaliniKIDS, named after my late mom (she was an awesome lady), and where we pair physical movement with emotional exercises in classrooms throughout the country. 

So we are gonna move.  It is gonna happen. In the spirit of physical movement and emotional exercises, let’s stand up. Don’t worry about your computer, all the notes you’ve just come from. Probably feeling a lot of energy at the conference. 

I want you to separate your feet, bend your knees. Cross your arms across your chest and just hold this for a second. I want you to think about the word ENERGY. The dictionary definition: the capacity for vigorous activity,  available power. What gives you energy? What gives me energy is music. When I think of music I think of drums. So I want you to think about a drum underneath you and your feet are the drumsticks we are going to jog in place for 20 seconds. The  20 seconds could be fast, it could be slow.

Stay with me, on the count of three. One, two, three! Jog in place. Feel the energy in your body. Jog – you guys can do a little bit better! Bend your knees a little bit more, a little bit more, feel the energy in your body. Let’s do 10 more seconds, nine, eight, feel energy, feel the available power, five, four, three, two, and one. Go ahead, have a seat back down. 

So think of someone in your life that gives you energy, just the first person that comes to your mind. Let that thought just settle. Now we’re moving on. What we just did hopefully helped you channel your energy, made you more available to this moment. We’re all here together to connect. So why is it more important than ever before to have physical movement be part of social and emotional learning?

I want you to think about a student going into a classroom today in school. For me, the image that comes to mind is like a skinny little door and a classroom sign – it’s always 113 the number – and I picture a fifth grade student trying to get into the door but they can’t because their head is so big, filled with so much stuff – like social media, 24-7 News cycle, over testing – that they can’t even go into the door and be ready to learn. There’s so much stimuli. And that is their reality – not what’s happening in their body. 

And when I think of this stimuli, the quote that comes to mind is one of my favorite quotes – it’s by Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lies our freedom to choose a response. In our response lies our growth.” 

It’s fairly simple: something happens – stimulus – and you have this opportunity to respond. In between is this space. The space for you to depressurize the situation, reduce anxiety, evaluate your options. For me the primary role of SEL is to make students aware of this space,  to create this space, to preserve it, to enlarge it. 

But we have a problem. In our society, the stimuli is increasing at a very rapid pace and it’s coming at the expense of this space – this opportunity to regulate our emotions. And so for me the the solution to this problem that is very obvious and very worldwide, is movement. 

So we are going to do another workout. The SOLUTION work out, surprise, surprise! Go ahead, stand up. Stand up, separate your feet. Stand up tall. I want you to think about where problems lie in your body. For me, I’m a neck person. I get tense in my neck. Is it your back? Is it your hands? Your feet? Wherever your problems are just shake it out for a second. Think about where where they lie in your body. Roll your shoulders back and down. All right, when you stand really tall, interlace your fingers, take your hands back behind your head. Bring your elbows into your face and pull your chin into your throat and just hold here. Don’t feel rushed. 

The dictionary definition of SOLUTION is a means of solving a problem or dealing with a difficult situation. Currently, I want you to think of the problem as stress in your body, stress in your neck. The solution is breath – inhale your head forward, exhale your shoulders back and down. Now rock your chin side to side, imagine you’re tracing a little necklace here. Standing up tall, go ahead release. Now everyone take your right ear to your right shoulder, hand on top of the head. I want you to inhale your head to the right, exhale your shoulder to the left. Think about the solution to tension in your body being space. Allow space to happen in your neck. Go ahead and release. Let’s do the other side.  Left ear to your left shoulder. Turn your chin and eye focus up. Pull your shoulder down to the right. Think about the difference between someone calling you a problem solver versus a solution finder. Find solutions in your body. Go ahead and release, sit back down. 

Can you sit back down a little bit more upright? A little bit more aware of your posture? So before I continue talking about social emotional learning, I want us to take a step back and talk about the evolution of physical movement as compared to 50, 100, thousands of years ago. As hunter gatherers and farmers, movement was just a part of our life. It was intrinsic to survival. We just had to move it wasn’t something we thought about. It’s only up until 200 years ago, with Industrial Revolution [humans] would really start to become more sedentary. And now we’re transferring so many tasks online rather than in person. And that trend continues as we find ourselves sitting at a computer for eight hours a day and then relegate the task of daily movement for 30 minutes at the end of the day. What used to be [a natural] part of our daily lives is now another thing on the to-do list, and it’s just not enough of a physical outlet. We’re bombarded with so much, if anything, I think our physical outlets should increase. 

So we’re getting more in our heads, less in our bodies in parallel. It goes against our innate human nature, and this trend is new. This is not the way it’s always been. I’m reminded of this from when I started teaching classes, I used to have clients come into the studio distracted on their phones, preoccupied, in the thick of New York City, and they weren’t in the mood to connect. But by the end of class they felt more vulnerable, more open for to us to share an experience together.  A more connected one. Same thing happened in classrooms – we paired a physical workout with a book club and when we did the physical workout first, students then felt more comfortable being vulnerable. The barriers to connecting just kind of disappeared. Students started thinking about, are my thoughts matching my actions? They were able to be present in the moment. It felt like they were more accountable to each other, to health, and it just made sense. 

I want you to meet one of our students, Angelica. She is a special, special person. And we’ll talk about her in a little bit. 

“This reminds me of perseverance, never giving up. I learned it through the program and now every time I’m scared I always think of that word […] like on the monkey bars, I got scared of monkey bars, I thought ‘persevere Angelica, persevere’ and instead I holded the monkey bars, and I and before I knew it I was actually really hanging on it for the first time.”

So this program started out with 13 kids in a middle school in Brooklyn and has expanded to a collection of programs that are worldwide and we reach hundreds of thousands of students. I’m really proud of our work but what is so special is something that’s so simple; is that this student right here just made a connection between a word perseverance in her mind and then through her body and through an action. And just that simple task alone – if she has that for the rest of her life, it’s just a true gift. 

So in the spirit of Angelica, go ahead, stand up. I want you think of your own personal monkey bars. This will be a little hard, so stay with it. Heels together, toes apart. So you’re making like a little V here. I want you to bend your knees, raise your heels up slightly. All right keep your heels together, reach your arms up towards the ceiling. Hold right here. Great. Awesome. I like the focus. Pull in your abdominals, roll your shoulders back and down.  Stand as if you are being filmed right now, like really stand upright. Now you’re just going to bend your knees down an inch and up. Lowering your hips down an inch, and up. Let’s go to ten, three, and up, persevere, four, do you feel burn in your thighs? Five, the dictionary definition of perseverance: doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving. All right two more, go down and up.  One more, hold. Right here. Hold. Can you reach your arms up higher? Pull in, we’re not giving up, we’re staying here. We’re going to do 20 little pulses, 10 second hold. Let’s go one, down, two, down, three, I want the burn, four, down, five, persevere! Angelica did the monkey bars, you guys can do this. Ten more, nine, down, eight, down, seven, down, six, down, five, we’re gonna do a ten second hold at the end, hold right here for 10 seconds. Arms up higher, pull in. Think about that word, perseverance, five, four, three, two, and one. 

Great job. All right go ahead, have a seat back down. Take a moment, close your eyes and think about education, and the monkey bars in your education life right now. What’s something that you can choose to persevere through? Just take a moment.

Go ahead and open up your eyes. So when I first started teaching this program in schools, SEL was not mainstream, it was you know, taboo to really talk about your emotions in the classroom. But what broke down that barrier to entry was movement. And not just moving to move, I’m talking about intentional movement, where you give the mind something to focus on like a single word and you make that body to mind connection very tangible, very practical. So movement led to focus, focus led to space, and that space led to students connecting with one another and their teachers

Now social emotional learning today is obviously much more popular. It’s appreciated, but with good press you also get bad press, and good intention does not always equal great implementation. And what we’re seeing in the SEL space is that it’s heavier. There’s so much noise, it’s distracted. We’re kind of expecting more from our students and our teachers. It’s become a mental overload. So when we think about this graphic here, the space is actually now filled with pressure.  It was supposed to be a breathing space. A space to pause and think about your decisions. We’re adding more stuff, we’re we’re testing our emotions. I’ve been in classrooms where teachers – they don’t know why but they’re counting how many times their students are saying thank you to one another – they don’t even know why they’re doing it but they’re testing it.

It’s it’s becoming too much and so I think the solution is to go back to basics, to simplify, to go back to our innate nature and add intentional movement again. Not just moving to move. Intentionally moving so you can connect to your mind.

So what’s the dream scenario? what does this look like in schools? How can you make this feel organic and set students up for success?

Number one: start with the teachers. You know we all started out as strangers, we’re still probably strangers but we’ve had a connected experience. We reset ourselves through a physical movement. Do that in a PD, do that in your meetings. You can just stop, have a chance to bond with one another physically and emotionally, and get back to what you’re doing again, and this will trickle down to students. So model it first.

Number two: make movement and reflection a regular habit. So I’ve been in schools and you have great brain breaks but they’re not necessarily brain breaks with intention. And you have emotional check-ins like mood meters, etc. Add the physical layer. Make mind-body connection actually happen together. You start these habits young they’ll become second nature and into adulthood. I mean we’ll just save ourselves a lot more money that way I think. 

Number three: weave physical and emotional learning into academics. So proactively plan for moments in the day where you think dysregulation is going to happen. It could be before a math exam, before state testing, after lunch, and you can infuse that with an intentional movement workout. You know the ENERGY workout we just did – a science teacher could do that when they’re talking about renewable energy. The PERSEVERANCE workout – you could do that when you’re talking about a heroic historical figure. The SOLUTION workout – you could do that in an algebra class. You can make academic subjects stickier. Emotions are part of life. The biggest math problem we face is not the math itself, is that we don’t know how to solve our own lives. You can make connections between academic subjects and emotions very easily. 

Number four: reimagine the physical structure of a school building. So when you walk into a school do you feel that the structure of that school is conducive to optimal physical and emotional health? For me I’m often in schools where I walk in, the PE teacher, an individual who has access to every single person in the building is over here. The counselor who also has access to every single student in the building is over here. I don’t even know if they’re connecting but they could. We could create an environment for that.  We see that in many different Industries – you rethink design and it leads to meaningful behavior change. We could do that in schools. We want students to make the link between physical and emotional health, we have to make it easier. You know I often think if I went to my favorite yoga class or my favorite running class – if right next door was the doctor’s office or the therapist office or my best friend, I would feel accountable to my health every single time I go. It would feel easier. We could do do that in schools. I know it’s a bold idea but we could make it happen with small changes. 

Ultimately I want us to connect physical movement with emotional health. So this is our hardest workout yet, be open to it. You’re going to stand up, you’re going to do the connect workout. I want you to stand and face a neighbor next to you or behind you and we’re gonna do this. We’re going to look into each other’s eyes. I’m going to try 20 seconds. You can laugh, you can think it’s awkward, whatever you got to do. On the count of three I want you to start. Try your best to be silent and look into each other’s eyes. One, two, three, go.

CONNECT: the dictionary definition – bring or join together, provide access and communication. Are you providing access to this other person? Look into each other’s eyes. Stand up tall, let this person in. Have about 10 more seconds. You can take a breath, it’s okay that person will not bite (I don’t think). Five more seconds, in five more seconds, I want you to say the first word that comes to your mind it could be cereal, it could be bananas, it could be SXSW, I do not care. Five, four, three, two, one. [laughs]

All right go ahead and have a seat back down. Connecting is powerful. When you really connect it’s invigorating, it’s challenging, it’s all the things. That’s what we want to do at this conference. I don’t want to see everyone on their phone the whole time or at their computer. We want to connect, that’s what we want for our students. We want them to feel comfortable physically and emotionally. To be comfortable and to connect with one another. And so ultimately if we want a big educational revolution, I believe the first step is – one of the first steps (there’s a lot of steps) – but it’s to exercise our emotions and make social emotional learning more physical.  Let’s actually have these moments together. 

[…]If you’re interested in just a first next step at your school or with your peers, there’s this website here,, where we provide the kind of workouts I did with you – ONE WORD workouts – from PK through 12. It’s a free resource, […] something to get you going. Thank you.

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