The celebrated meditation technique helps many adults reduce stress levels. But can it be taught effectively to youngsters?
There is a soft breeze wafting through the blossom on the apple trees in our garden and the sound of birdsong further lightens the fresh feeling of spring. My three children are sitting on yoga mats in the warm sunshine, arms in front of them ballerina-style, as they breathe gently in and out. It’s brilliant. They haven’t been this quiet since Captain America was released on DVD.
Mindfulness, which is said to have originated among Buddhists more than 2,500 years ago, is a form of meditation. It is currently so globally popular it’s being embraced by celebrities, medics and even the military.
Now, and with the backing of experts, it’s becoming increasingly available for children. My three – Archie, 10; Oscar, nine; and Lara, six – as well as Archie’s friend George, are trying out a class with the help of mindfulness and relaxation teacher Sarah Salmon, who teaches in pre-schools, schools and in one-to-one sessions at home.
“Mindfulness is a very simple form of meditation,” says Danny Penman, author of the phenomenally successful book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. “Basically, you are paying full conscious attention to whatever is going on around you and what’s going on in your mind.”
This sounds simple, and even a bit vague, but doing meditation has been clinically shown to alleviate stress, anxiety and even depression and chronic pain, as well as improve general quality of life. Converts talk of feeling calmer and happier.
“This awareness means that you can incorporate mindfulness into every aspect of your life,” says Danny. “When you are walking to work just listen to traffic, enjoy the smell of coffee and the sight of sunlight glinting off of windows.”
Mindfulness has been on the periphery of my consciousness (see, what a very mindful comment I just wrote) for some time. But I haven’t got around to embracing it fully, what with the dirty washing needing attention and the daily churning out of gourmet fish fingers and potato waffles. However, Archie had a mindfulness class at school before Christmas, and his teacher noted how much more focused and relaxed he seemed afterwards. So I was intrigued to see whether they might all respond in a different way.
You may be pondering that surely meditation is unnecessary and possibly ridiculous for such young children. They want for nothing material and have an excellent (if not mindful) mother. Do they really need help relaxing?
In fact, and in all seriousness, yes, they probably do. “Children suffer stress and anxiety. Frighteningly, the average age for first onset of depression is 13,” says Danny. “They pick up stress and mood from their parents and teachers. If everybody around them is anxious, they become the same.” Social pressures and testing in schools add to this.
When I think back over the past year, I have memories of the children having occasional rows with friends and getting the odd poor mark at school. Each one was treated like a failed Oxbridge entrance exam in their minds, and each time I hoped that they would get over the angst.
That’s how we find ourselves sitting on the grass in a circle around Sarah. First, she asks the children to lie on their tummies, and asks how they’re all feeling, preferably using the weather as a metaphor.
Oscar solemnly ignores this suggestion and says he is “relaxed”, Archie is apparently “calm”, George is both “warm and relaxed”, and Lara is very cheerfully “cloudy”. This is, says Sarah, a good way for them to identify how they feel. “That means they’re better able to deal with it.” (She didn’t ask me, but for the record I was, “thundery with a chance of heavy showers”).
Next, we stand up, ready to move on to the all-important awareness of breathing. “It’s important to stand straight so that our bones are all in the right place,” says Sarah, and she invites us all to find our hip bones. (There is an interlude while she demonstrates to Lara where this elusive bit of body is to be found). “Posture is vital for the correct movement of blood and energy through the body.”
We bounce up and down on our toes (“feeling our contact with the Earth”), inflating our tummies as we breathe in.
“Directing breath into the stomach is very calming, and focusing on breathing slows it down and helps you to observe the stress,” explains Sarah. Although you are still experiencing the emotions, this is apparently a good way of letting it flow through you. I’m interested to note that all four are focused rather than dismissive.
Yoga poses start well, but become a little chaotic later [PHOTO: JAY WILLIAMS]
I can’t vouch for the children at this point, but I am able to confirm that I feel much less stressed, even though we have two extra children staying and we’re approaching the end of a very long weekend.
The yoga poses start well. We stretch up, touch our toes, then slip seamlessly into the plank, that near impossible pre-press-up pose you do to get a flat stomach. At this point things become a little chaotic. Oscar goes off piste and actually does a few press-ups and Lara, who is rubbish at doing the plank, offers to demonstrate the splits instead.
Then our cocker spaniel, who has been watching with great interest, runs at the little group and actually jumps over Archie’s head. Had I been in charge I would have been yelling and possibly breathing quite fast, but Sarah stays marvellously calm and coaxes everyone into doing cat stretches without so much as an, “Oh, for goodness sake.”
Mindful eating is fascinating. “It’s a way of realising how delicious food can be,” points out Sarah. The children close their eyes and hold out their hands. Each one is given a cube of chocolate (which I personally think is a bit of a cop-out – a sprout would have been more fun to watch) and asked to feel it, smell it and slowly taste it.
“Lick it, feel how it is on your tongue,” she invites. Again, I muse how a cube of liver would have been more entertaining.
“Did you know,” says George, thoughtfully, as they are allowed to open their eyes, “your nose tastes more than your tongue?” Oscar still has his eyes closed and is savouring the chocolate.
We finish with relaxation exercises, during which I almost fall asleep and the rest of the prone forms on the grass are jolly quiet.
I am blown away by the simplicity and variety of the exercises. It seems almost too obvious to state that if you breathe properly you calm down, and slowly appreciating food or your feelings will enhance and de-stress your life. But it is making such a difference to those schoolchildren lucky enough to have sessions that there is a strong argument for it to be offered nationwide.
Danny tells me that he first discovered mindfulness at school and he believes that it ought to be automatically taught. “Just as they are given a break from lessons, perhaps they ought to close their eyes and focus on their breath. It could change the education system,” he says.
Mindfulness teacher Arabella Thring, who taught at our school through the Mindfulness for Schools project, and with whom Archie had that first successful class, says that she has seen quite extraordinary results. “I have an anxious 11-year-old boy who couldn’t sleep. Within a fortnight his mother said that he was sleeping properly.”
What about the children? Has it made a difference? To my surprise, having not expected anything from just one session, they have been much better at playing with each other over the last couple of days.
I am also less shouty, and the day they go back to school I stand on our terrace looking down the valley and slowly breathing in the scent of blossom. It might have been mindfulness, but to be fair, it might just have been relief.