I am currently undertaking my yoga teacher training at Tamara Yoga in Perth and as part of my course we are asked to complete a research assignment on a suggested topic or a topic of our own choosing. I decided to choose my own, going with the area I was most interested in.
Having three children of my own and enjoying the benefits, myself, of meditation and mindfulness, I was interested in what cold hard facts I could uncover to explain the feelign of ease, peace and well-being in my household.
It’s long but worth it 🙂
The benefits of teaching meditation and mindfulness to children.
The Dalai Lama has said, “If every eight-year-old in the world was taught meditation, we would eliminate violence in one generation.”
How do you feel after you meditate?
How do you feel a month after regular practice? A year?
I know I feel like a different person. I feel I have more clarity, more regulation of my emotions, a more stable, centred, clear-thinking mind.
In my study of one person I can say with a resounding yes that meditation has had a positive impact on my life.
Ancient Yogic scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali refer to meditation as the path to ecstasy, to universal oneness, to God.
Modern day hopes for meditation are less lofty. In looking at the different programs for meditation and mindfulness, the number one reason for meditation seems to be to de-stress.
Deepak Chopra says, “We live in such an anxiety driven society that what we are looking for is the best way to manage stress, but what we should be looking for is peace, equanimity, love and enjoyment of our experiences.”
I think one goal leads to the other. Let’s manage our stress so that we can open up the pathways to peace and then feel that universal oneness.
The ancient texts describe the way. They teach us that the only way to get the mind under control is to still it and to still it, we must practice.
The Bhagavad Gita says,
“The mind is the friend
Of those who have control over it,
And the mind acts like an enemy
For those who do not control it.”
The Yoga Sutras say,
“Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.”
Through the eight limbs of yoga, what we ultimately want to achieve, is to still the mind and the texts say, this is what will lead us to God.
Now going back to science, the research says that meditational benefits go deeper than just what we notice. Meditation is changing our DNA. Meditation is reaching down into each and every one of our cells and changing its structure.
A study on cancer patients noted that the group who meditated had their telomeres, which are stretches of DNA that prevent chromosomal deterioration, in-tact, compared to the control group whose had shortened with the disease.
We are making physiological changes to the brain when we meditate, increasing memory, sense of self, empathy and stress regulation. There have been extensive brain scans to prove this, using MRI’s on short and long term meditators. The results show the brain centre for attention and focus lights up during meditation and in long-term meditators, increases in size.
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and the Waisman Centre, says that a growing body of “hard-nosed neuroscience research” is attracting attention to the profound effects of meditation. “This deserves serious scientific attention,” he says. “It also explains why people spend time sitting on the meditation cushion, because of the effects on day-to-day life.”
Davidson compares mental practice to physical exercise. “We all know that if an individual works out on a regular basis, that can change cardiovascular health,” he says. “In the same way, these data suggest that certain basic mechanisms of the mind, like attention, can also be trained and improved through systematic practice.”
Often in life when something is good, well it’s just too good to be true. Chocolate tastes amazing – the pleasure centres in your mind go wild for it – but it’s not good for you. The insane thing about meditation is that there is no downside.
You might try to argue that taking time out of your day to meditate is a down-side – you are losing productivity, but that’s not true. The research shows you that it actually increases productivity and I know that I get things done quicker, more proficiently and perhaps more intelligently when I have meditated and have a regular meditation practice.
Research studies show that people who meditate:
- Sleep better
- Use oxygen more efficiently
- Have increased production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA
- Have lower cholesterol levels
- Have decreased blood pressure and hypertension
- Have lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress
- Are more emotionally attuned
For parents, who may find the word meditation, weird, odd or religion-associated, schools have introduced meditation, but included it in the overall term “mindfulness” which is now an increasingly popular subject from the internet, to bookshelves to schools.
In 2004 psychologist Scott Bishop, then at the University of Toronto, and his associates defined mindfulness as “Maintaining attention on present experiences and adopting an attitude toward them characterized by curiosity, openness and acceptance.”
The million-dollar question now is, what happens if we get all these skills at a younger age?
What happens to future generations that can handle stress better, have more empathy and kindness for their fellow human beings? What happens to children, adolescents and adults that have a tendency to “be here now” rather than fretting over the past or worrying about the future?
But another question to ask is do our children need this? I mean, what do they have to be stressed about?
In 2009 the American Psychological Association sponsored the Stress in America survey finding that children were a lot more stressed out than their parents think. The reason parents are missing these stress signs? Because they are so stressed out.
A study was done of more than 200,000 children enrolled in mindfulness programs at school by The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. The results found that classroom behaviour improved and students were more engaged in learning. There was a decrease in depression and an increase in the ability to control emotion.
The Hawn Foundation funded research into the actress and mindfulness advocate, Goldie Hawn’s, Mind Up program. These programs have entered American schools and focus on mindfulness and meditation. The children on the program had less absenteeism, better reading scores, a 25% reduction in aggression on the playground, better attention, more concentration, quicker reactivity in answering questions and responding to teachers, better interpersonal relationships, improved ability to manage stress and a 63% rise in optimism.
Another study tested the samples of saliva for levels of the primary stress hormone, cortisol, which goes up and down naturally during the day. The children on the Mind Up program were able to bring that cortisol level down indicating they were better able to manage stress. Stress interferes with memory, the ability to concentrate, recall and focus, all of which would have a direct impact on school work.
Is there any surprise that in one study they found boys improving more than girls? Studies show that women have greater ability to reduce stress and anxiety in themselves than men do. How amazing is it that before some of these little boys even turn into men they will have these beautiful mindfulness tools to take into their lives?
So what are they teaching these kids?
These mindfulness programs are teaching children to understand their brain, where their emotions come from, why they are feeling like they are, what’s happening to their body when they have feelings like anger, sadness, rejection, overwhelm and then giving them the tools to manage these fluctuating emotions. These tools include sense training like mindful listening, mindful sensing, mindful breathing and mindful eating. They also have attitude training by using tools such as a gratitude journal and they are taught to undertake acts of kindness – for the community and each other.
When I think of the tools they are using, such as the mindful sensing, my thoughts go to The Radiance Sutras which has an incredible number of poetic, senses meditations to use in our day to day lives, such as:
“Wherever, whenever you feel carried away,
Rejoicing in every breath
That is your meditation hall”
“Entering this current of sound,
The Listening One
Forgets the external world, becomes
Absorbed into internal sound”
These tools are being re-taught to children who have not long lost the art of being absorbed, being in the moment and understanding the stillness of the mind. It would be logical then to consider that it actually should be easier to teach these methods to children, than to adults, who have long lost the art of being mindful or having that one-pointed focus.
In terms of its implementation into schools there are of course going to be sceptics. One Doctor, Dr. Schonert-Reichl was quoted as saying, “I was surprised when I saw how quickly the kids (fourth and fifth graders) – and then the teachers – bought into the program and practices. The kids just got it right away and seemed hungry for something that would help them manage the stresses in their life… in my twenty years of measuring social-emotional learning quotients, I’ve never seen a program (she was discussing the MindUp program) that works as well as this one. I had to go back and look at the numbers again to be sure.”
Unfortunately, sceptics are not silenced by the sight of happy children. They are silenced by the incredible neuro-scientific research as well as the continued academic success that these programmes are producing.
Goldie Hawn has been thrilled with the research showing her program’s efficiency, but her main aim was to give something to children that they can take with them. She says that the results from her programme, which show that children improve across the board – increasing their self-esteem, relationships and academically, is just the results of a happy child. Neurological studies show that when the mind is less stressed the neuro-functions work better so they can learn better, feel better and care more.
In summary Meditation and Mindfulness Programs for Children:
- Improve the connectivity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is linked to improved attention, memory processing and decision making abilities
- Involve tuning in to internal and external experiences with curiosity, resulting in increased self-awareness, social awareness, and self-confidence
- Increase children’s ability to self-regulate their emotions, especially difficult emotions such as fear and anger, through breathing and other grounding techniques
- Improve empathy or the ability to understand what another person is thinking or feeling
- Builds resilience by giving children skills to help them to cope better with stress
The mindfulness in school’s studies are a relatively new thing and as such there is no ongoing data about how these mindful young adults grow up. However, mindfulness practice is currently being taught in thousands of schools across the world, to hundreds of thousands of children, so eventually the results are going to come pouring in.
Professor Richard Davidson says mindfulness instruction in schools “takes advantage of a natural window of opportunity during childhood, when the neural circuitry that allows us to pay attention, calm ourselves and attune to our own and other’s feelings takes shape.”
Ultimately what I find the most encouraging is the absolute unrealised potential that these children, our future generation, will have taking these skills with them into the future.
The Bhagavad Gita says,
“One must elevate, not degrade, oneself
By one’s own mind.
The mind alone is one’s friend
As well as one’s enemy.”
We will have a generation of adolescents, who will have strategies, besides drinking, drug-taking and rebellious behaviour, to use when they are feeling rejected, over-whelmed, emotional and hormonal.
By bringing them to their breath, by focusing on the present, these kids will have the tools to increase their self-esteem and to really know their self, leaving them free to focus on their unique talents and gift them to the world.
And if that won’t change the world, I don’t know what will.
10 Mindful Minutes, Goldie Hawn and Wendy Holden, 2011
The Radiance Sutras, Lorin Rochem PHD, 2014
The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, Georg Feurstein,