It’s 5 pm and already dark outside on a wintry January afternoon in 2018. Varsity Wrestling Team Coach Rich Knasik walks into Room 304 of the Pinkham Building at Rye Country Day School in New York, where I wait with my laptop, a set of chimes, and bright green yoga mats. The wrestling team, consisting of eighteen upperclassmen, stroll in behind their coach, looking rather tired from the long day at school and the grueling after-school practice. It’s the first of six sessions they will have with me this semester, and they are one of the five sports teams who have signed up for this no-credit mindfulness and meditation course. As is my routine, I will deliver a short didactic, and then we will practice meditation and breathing techniques for the remainder of the class. I know that in these next few sessions I have a rather short window to try to impress upon them the importance of developing a habit of emotional and mental hygiene (otherwise known as mindfulness). All too soon, six weeks will fly by and they will drift away from Room 304, and back into the whirlwind of high school teenage life, with all its concomitant challenges. However, the teachings – if well received – will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
I look at their faces as they settle into their seats, feeling the usual anxiety bubble up in me when I face a new group for the first time. Will their eyes glaze as they listen to me talk about neuroplasticity and how the nature of their thoughts affects the capacity of their brain to learn and remember? Will they giggle self-consciously when I ask them to close their eyes and track the movement of breath in their bodies? Will there be gentle snores when I ask them to lay down on the yoga mats for a 10-minute body scan?
Mindfulness, simple to define but extremely hard to practice, is the art of staying in the present moment. This cultivation of this form of awareness allows us to track unhelpful distractions that are ubiquitous in all our lives, and even more so in the technology and social media ridden lives of teenagers. It’s a radical new approach to learning with overarching benefits that have been tested out not only in neuroscience, but medical and psychiatric labs as well. It builds the ability to concentrate, reflect upon one’s learning style, develop metacognition and train oneself in emotional regulation. The practice has immediate impact on physiological health as it lowers blood pressure and heart rate, activates the parasympathetic nervous system and puts the body in relaxation mode, as opposed to the omnipresent stress mode. Furthermore, it shifts the focus of learning from analytical and logical intelligence to more of a heart based learning that fosters emotional intelligence and compassion.
Today, in the first class, we will take a deep dive into a topic that is close to everyone's heart: how to manage stress. The benefits of mindfulness are far reaching but we don’t generally explore ideas such as finding creativity and purpose until we can eradicate stress and anxiety from our daily lives. I challenge them to distinguish between the good stress (eustress) that motivates us and the bad stress (distress) that freezes us. We chat about the various ways in which anxiety can manifest itself into our lives, not always visible, but always damaging.
Very soon, I will take them through a curriculum that will teach them how to practice paying attention, how to listen actively and how to purposefully develop new habits. We will learn how to question the validity of negative thoughts and emotions and notice our mind when it slips into rumination and day dreaming. We will challenge that voice in our heads that tells us we are never good enough and learn how to develop self-compassion when we stumble. We will ask what it takes to bounce back from adversity and reflect upon the sources of happiness, meaning and purpose in life.
Through all of this, we will learn a variety of meditation techniques that help us relax (the 4-7-8 breath), or give us a boost of energy (a form of fast diaphragmatic breathing that increases heart rate), help us sleep better (the “beditation”), or help us practice gratitude and forgiveness in our lives. We will try to bring mindfulness (or awareness) to all aspects of our lives including sleep, nutrition and exercise, how we study, and how we interact with people. Over the years, I’ve watched my students evolve from being restless and fidgety during their meditation practice to being calm and relaxed.
Sometimes I am lucky to have their rapt attention, and we tackle the difficult concepts of catching and letting go of thoughts and perceiving emotions in their bodies. We explore how each emotion has a corresponding “signature” in our bodies, and how we can tap into the energy of a powerful emotion. At other times, if they are tired, we practice mindful eating: a snack is always accompanied by a cheer! While they mindfully chew the tiny raisin with their eyes closed, observing the sensations in their mouth, I invite them to observe what the act of swallowing food feels like. I slide in a mini-lesson on addiction as I encourage them to observe what it feels like to crave another raisin (a foundational practice for eliminating addiction, especially the rising phenomenon of vaping). We have a little fun as we trace the journey of the little raisin from a farm to our supermarket, bringing a deep sense of gratitude to all the people involved in bringing food to us – a practice that helps one appreciate the larger web of life we are part of, and lose the me-centredness we are habituated to. Sometimes we walk outside to notice new things like changing fall colors, or a fallen branch or the warm touch of the breeze on our cheeks. We observe with new eyes, listen with new ears and feel new sensations in our bodies – opening up new sensory gating channels that lie beyond the realm of the rational thinking brain.
Zoe Athanason, a typical teenager at this school, is the captain of the Girls Varsity squash team and founder and president of Give2Learn, which fundraises and donates school supplies to children in the Dominican Republic and Syrian refugee camps in Greece. She has been practicing mindfulness with the popular mobile app Headspace, after being exposed to it in school last year.“In life, especially in an environment where everyone is focused on successes and the more superficial parts of life, it is important to know how to ground yourself and be able to control your conscience and mental health. As a young person, it is difficult to always feel 100% secure and confident in yourself; however, I think meditation is something that can lead a person on the right path of connecting yourself to who you are.”
In the words of Georgette Summers, Assistant Director of Athletics and also Coach for Varsity Lacrosse and Field Hockey, “Mindfulness teaches our community members effective and sustainable skills and strategies to manage stress and anxiety. As a faculty member, who has been fortunate to be part of the program, I see the benefits of daily practice. As coaches, we counted on the breathing practices as part of our coaching toolbox. During a field hockey championship game we used the 4-7-8 breathing technique to calm and refocus our athletes. Student-athletes have shared with us that they have used the “chicken breath”, when they are feeling sluggish and unfocused, before a test. We are hoping each student can take away at least one practice that appeals to their needs.”
The wrestling team coach Rich Knazik, has already gone through the program in previous years. He is a strong supporter of bringing mindfulness to schools, and finds that the practice calms his athletes, as well as gives them a boost of energy when needed. Today he helps me settle the class down by reminding them of the power of these techniques, both for wrestling and for life. “The wrestling team loves mindfulness breathing exercises to relax and focus during a long day at a wrestling tournament. We also embrace the fast-paced breathing exercises to prepare, minutes before stepping on to the mat.”
It is late now on this wintry night; I finish up my class with few minutes of silent breathing, before we all head home. As I watch the young faces concentrating on their breath and surrendering their tight muscles to the ground beneath them, I feel a deep sense of peace. The seeds of mindfulness have been sown; the children will always have access to their inner lives because of these mindfulness sessions they participated in.