Practicing mindfulness

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When Taos Academy lost three of its students to suicide two years ago, teacher Anne-Marie Emanuelli began looking for ways to deal with her overwhelming sadness.

“Out of profound grief and despair, I was searching for something to help me and my students. I had been practicing meditation personally and found an app on the phone about mindfulness,” says Emanuelli.

She defines mindfulness as a practice or activity that allows you to teach yourself to concentrate in the present moment and to be aware of the moment. She experimented with the app called Calm that can be downloaded to a smartphone or on-line.

Initial exercises are offered for free with more practices available through subscription. As she worked with the exercises for herself and her daughter, she saw that it might be a tool that could work in the classroom.

“As part of the mission of our school, we emphasize social and emotional wellness and do check-ins with our students. I saw that this application could benefit the students and me, too. It was something that we could explore together,” says Emanuelli.

Along with another teacher who was looking into tools, Emanuelli researched websites that cater to schools. She took an online class at mindfulschools.org.

The program taught different ways that teachers could be mindful and set a calm example for their students as well as practices that could be taught in the classroom. Emanuelli says “It all came together organically as we were looking for ways to get through grief.”

Now mindfulness practices are a regular part of her classes with sixth and ninth graders at Taos Academy. At either the beginning or end of class, the students take a moment in silence to become mindful of their emotions.

They learn body scan techniques that help them become aware of feelings and assist them in relaxing. They might experiment with mindful walking or even eating a cookie in a state of awareness.

“It’s been fascinating,” says Emanuelli. “There has been very little resistance; 99 percent of the students participate. They embrace the possibility of having a moment of silence. At school, they are so busy. They are expected to be on task and to perform. Outside of school, their cell phones provide constant input through Snapchat and Instagram. When I ask them what they appreciate about mindfulness, they say that they are grateful for a moment to relax.”

As a result of these practices, her relationships with her students have improved. There are fewer behavior problems.

Several students have downloaded the app and continue their practice outside of the classroom. “It has built a feeling of trust and community that is really wonderful,” she says. “In mindfulness, if we are in the present, we are not judging each other. That is really positive for teenagers who go through a lot of judging of themselves and others.”

Health benefits

Research shows that health benefits also come from mindfulness practices. As reported by the American Psychological Association, the scientifically proven benefits include reduced rumination (repetitive worry), reduction in stress, improvements in memory and focus. Studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness are less emotionally reactive and have higher satisfaction with their relationships and better immune functions.

In looking into mindfulness and observing her students, Emanuelli has noticed many benefits. “Mindfulness helps us identify emotions and stress in our body, to stop for a minute before we react and identify what we feel. By labeling an emotion, we can desensitize the brain from its fight or flight response. We can choose to respond rather than react. It is profound for young people and adults, too.”

Sustainable Mindfulness: Beyond the Obvious

A conference titled Sustainable Mindfulness: Beyond the Obvious will take place in Albuquerque Saturday, (April 21). It is the fourth year of the conference organized by Mindful New Mexico.

Founder Sidni Lamb has been an international humanitarian aid worker and United Nations diplomat as well as a university professor and social entrepreneur. Her experience with post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in war zones led her to understand that connecting to the present moment is what makes us the most effective and creative agents of change.

Lamb says, “The first Leaders in Mindfulness Conference held in 2015 was born out of a vision for a healthier, more prosperous state. This gathering broke the isolation of 100 New Mexican educators, entrepreneurs, healers and others from around the state who integrate mindfulness into the context of health, education, business, and justice.”

Lamb saw some writing that Emanuelli had done on her mindful practices in the classroom and invited her to speak at the upcoming April event. In addition to showing videos of her class engaged in a mindfulness practices, Emanuelli will lead the attendees in some practices to model the activities she has been exploring in the classroom. She says, “It is an opportunity to share outside of my school and get feedback and do some networking.”

Mindfulness for the unexpected

Improv Medicine of Taos will be presenting two workshops at the conference. Founder Jason Pfeifer and communications director Irene Loy will be presenting a youth workshop called “Building Community through Mindful Play” that will include a series of games leading to group awareness and a sense of community.

A second session is called “Mindful Leadership through Improvised Movement.” Pfeifer says, “Our bodies inform us as leaders, if we listen to them in the moment. We will lead participants through a series of movement-based improv exercises as a way of practicing spatial awareness, loosening up our bodies and increasing the flexibility of our responses.”

Youth leadership

Julie Tato of Taos attended the conference for the first time last year and has been working on developing mindful youth leadership programs. She says, “The conference includes activities for and led by teens and young adults with interest and experience in mindfulness, including integration with poetry, art, anti-bullying and leadership.”

Tato has been practicing mindfulness and meditation for 30 years. She teaches both youth and adults in schools, mental health settings and retreats at the Lama Foundation, Golden Willow Retreat and elsewhere in Northern New Mexico.

By collaborating with others, she hopes to expand mindfulness options for youth by working with the Taos Mountain Sangha to provide training in teaching mindfulness skills for children and teens. For the second summer, a Teen Mindfulness Camp will be offered at the Lama Foundation in June.

A lifelong practice

As Emanuelli points out, Taos is the perfect place to explore mindfulness.

“People here are open to new things. It is a beautiful place to sit by the river and be mindful,” she says. “I will continue this practice in my classroom. We use it any time the students feel revved up. We take a moment to breathe. I plan to do this forever.” 

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