I often ask my youngest yoga students, “What does it mean to be mindful?”
“Mindful is when you pay attention to right now,” one of my first graders once responded. “Like your mind is full of just right now.”
Pretty spot on. Researchers at Berkeley define mindfulness as the “moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”
I teach yoga and mindfulness practices to 300 students a week at the River School in Washington, D.C. The class gives students as young as 2 years old tools to connect with their breath, bodies, and feelings through music, movement, stories, and relaxation.
My curriculum allows students, teachers, and parents the opportunity to pause and breathe. To stop and notice. To listen and feel.
I’m grateful that I get to bear witness to the transformative effects these practices have.
I often hear stories of students using deep breathing as a tool to self-regulate in a difficult moment, unprompted by their teachers or parents.
Teachers tell me how their own yoga and mindfulness practices help manage the stress of a chaotic classroom and a heavy workload.
Parents report how it has helped them be more calm and patient with their children.
And more and more research is backing up what I’ve seen.
Studies are showing that mindfulness training actually leads to structural changes in the brain. It can enhance attention, awareness, impulse control, and executive functioning skills. It helps cultivate compassion and overall well-being in both children and adults.
I began teaching yoga and mindfulness because of their importance in my own development. Contemplative practices gave me tools at a young age to cope with the emotional struggles of losing a parent.
I’m my biggest student, usually teaching others what I need to learn myself. It’s a daily practice for me to breathe, feel, and notice. When I’m disciplined in my practice, I feel kinder and more aware, inwardly and outwardly.
Sound like something you’d like to try? This is what the practice looks like for me:
Breathe: Try counting each breath, slowly breathing in and out. Make your exhales longer than your inhales for a deeply relaxing effect.
Notice: Take a pause, observe what’s going on, and identify what you’re feeling before acting or reacting. This pause between stimulus and reaction is mindfulness.
Feel: When you feel the onset of a challenging emotion, don’t chase it away. Allow yourself to sit with it.
Breathe. Notice. Feel. Try it alone or with your children, family members, friends, or colleagues. You don’t need a fancy studio or a guru to reap the benefits of yoga and mindfulness.
These tools, in their profound simplicity, have the power to change an individual’s life, a generation of children, and our world — moment by moment, breath by breath.