Of One Mind
Reviving an ancient practice: focus
Jessica Knopke leads a breathing exercise where each child blows a gentle, slow breath on a feather to make it “wiggle and dance”
Photos by Rana Faure
Jessica Knopke enters a classroom at ThistleWaithe Learning Center and asks the young children to form two lines. She selects two to distribute mini-yoga mats to classmates and quietly demonstrates how to lay it on the floor. The children follow. They all breathe in and out and then a young girl chimes a bowl as her classmates put their hands on their stomachs to feel their breath.
Knopke then leads a breathing exercise: each child blows a gentle, slow breath on a feather to make it “wiggle and dance” in the air. Once all feathers have been collected, Knopke calmly leads them in a conversation about difficult emotions and how to use their breath to make themselves feel better.
In approximately 20 minutes, Knopke has taught a room of three and four year olds one of the most essential mindfulness skills, and they all understood. “Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment without judgment,” Knopke, owner of Lily Pad Yoga, explains. “When we practice mindfulness, we can manage difficult emotions, be kind to ourselves and each other, and pause before we react.”
It is believed that the concept of mindfulness dates back to approximately 1500 BCE as part of the Hinduism practice of yoga.
In the past few years, mindfulness has experienced resurgence in the United States. Recently, educators and mental-health professionals are recognizing the benefits of teaching mindfulness to children.
Ridgefield High School’s Maggie Meriwether teaches a health and wellness class for seniors. When Meriwether chose to include a section on stress management, she knew that mindfulness was the correct approach.
“By teaching mindfulness, I’m helping students learn about another tool they can access in their tool kit,” she says. “They’ve learned a breathing exercise and an actual meditation or two. It’s an introduction to the practice, and if they are interested, I provide them with resources to learn more.”
One of the key concepts of mindfulness is the ability to focus on the specific moment. It helps you concentrate on the task. These lessons are impactful and help students prepare for or take a test, during sports, or even in home and social settings.
“About a month or two after I taught mindfulness to one of my classes, a student approached me,” Meriwether recalls. “He had gone to visit a college last weekend and was with friends. They got some food and the weather was perfect. He remembered our mindfulness lesson and focused on being in that moment. He said he really enjoyed being present, and thanked me. Mindfulness helped him recognize the that experience.”
Kristen Kleis, a Spanish teacher at Scotts Ridge Middle School, has also witnessed the benefits of teaching mindfulness. She begins each class with yoga and breathing exercises. Because of a grant she received from the Ridgefield Education Foundation, Kleis studied both yoga and mindfulness programs designed for schools. She learned that the best way to teach these skills is by example.
“They often see mindfulness in myself and my reactions to situations,” Kleis explains. “If something falls off of my desk and breaks, my first reaction is to take a deep breath and say, ‘I’m upset right now, so I’m just going to breathe.’ Then they see me actually breathing. Or I say, ‘That makes me angry, but I understand. I’m going to take a few deep breaths and then move on.’ Whatever emotion I’m experiencing, I say it out loud. I really try hard to use it to manage my own behavior because I am the role model in the classroom.”
In addition to her daily classroom lessons in mindfulness, Kleis does Yoga Fridays, when students learn a combination of Spanish and yoga, and she also offers an after school mindfulness and yoga program.
A combination of students, parents, and teachers regularly approach Kleis with stories of how mindfulness has benefitted their lives. Many of her colleagues are interested in including mindfulness in their classrooms, understanding that educating the whole child is important to their success.
From preschool through high school, mindfulness makes a difference. “When children learn these skills and grow with them, it’s amazing,” says Knopke. “If they feel nervous, anxious or fearful, they are not in a position to learn. Mindfulness gives them strategies to feel calmer. It works.”