Back in the 90’s before I had even heard the term ‘mindfulness,’ my older brother came back from a trip abroad, full of stories. One of the things he found funny was a sign that read, “Mind your head.” As a practitioner of Buddhism, he automatically interpreted it as ‘put a mind inside your head.’ I know, it’s a nerdy joke, but he’s an engineer so he has an excuse, doesn’t he?
While I didn’t find the sign as funny as he did, years later I do find it compelling. Specifically, it makes me think of how some might consider the mind to be something that is not just in the head, but in the entire body as a field of energy. This idea is much easier to accept now that practices such as yoga and mindfulness have become mainstream. But understanding and accepting the idea that the mind inhabits the entire body is not the point of mindfulness. Instead, it is meant to be practiced and experienced.
Fortunately, it is very simple and easy enough for kids to practice. Not only is it accessible to very children as young as 2, it can cross cultural boundaries since it’s modern evolution has made it so that it does not have to be affiliated with any particular religion. There has also been much research on mindfulness and other related practices, such as yoga, but I personally feel that it is such a commonsense practice, the benefits are simple and evident: kids learn to regulate their emotions, pay attention, make decisions with more intention, and develop empathy and compassion.
For me, mindfulness is about slowing down and creating a little more space in your day. It seems that as both adults and kids tend to be overscheduled, the downtime that mindfulness provides brings balance to the day.
Here are 5 reasons why mindfulness is a great practice for kids (or people of any age!
- It’s an on-and-off-the-mat practice. You may have heard yoga teachers talk about taking your practice ‘off the mat.’ That’s just a down-to-earth way of describing how we integrate our yoga practice into our lives outside of yoga class. Mindfulness can be done in almost any context or situation because it is basically just a way to bring your full attention and awareness to the present moment.
- For kids who have trouble sitting still, it is a way to bring meditative awareness through movement (see this article for how to use mindfulness with movement). Whenever I am able to get a class of little yogis to sit quietly, even if it’s just for 30 seconds, it feels like a small victory. Why? Because most kids love to move and asking them to sit still quietly is a big expectation. One nice thing about mindfulness is that it offers some of the benefits of meditation but it can be done while walking, riding a bus, sitting in class, and even eating.
- Mindfulness can help us connect to nature and our surroundings. Mindfulness can open you up the world around you. If sitting on a cushion indoors with your eyes closed seems to produce more anxiety than relaxation, bring your practice outside. Traditionally, yoga encourages withdrawing the senses from external stimulation; this can seem in direct opposition to the nature of children! They learn about their world through their senses and I would venture to say that at a young age, withdrawing the senses is not usually appropriate. What about directing the senses in a purposeful, curious, and reflective way?
- It promotes empathy and introspection. It’s obvious that mindfulness encourages introspection because it basically is introspection. You might wonder how we could know for sure that mindfulness also increases empathy. I think that if you learn and practice it correctly, it slows your reaction time down enough to help you reflect before you respond. That means that you will be more likely to act with empathy, compassion, and kindness. Maybe not every time, but at least more often than not.
- It can help reduce stress and conflict in family life as well as in school settings. Since most kids are buried in homework these days, they get very little downtime. So much of their day adds pressure to perform, produce, and be the best. There is so much emphasis on deadlines, finished products, and rewards; too much emphasis on doing rather than being. The thing about mindfulness is that it’s a forever sort of project. You don’t graduate from it, get a grade for it, or a degree in it. It’s a way of being.
Suggested reading: There are a lot of books on mindfulness out there for both kids and adults. Two of my favorite for kids are: A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles by Thich Nhat Hanh and Peaceful Piggy Meditation by Kerry Lee MacLean. For adults who want to gain a comprehensive understanding of children’s brain development and some mindful techniques for facilitating emotional and mental health, I recommend The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel.