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Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to Responsibly Teach Yoga and Mindfulness to Adults and Children

photo courtesy Robyn Hussa Farrell
Robyn Hussa Farrell, MFA, is an award-winning New York City theatre producer as well as an E-RYT Certified Yoga Teacher and an accredited Continuing Education Provider through Yoga Alliance. She is the creator of NOURISH Recovery Yoga, and founder and CEO of Mental Fitness-- an award-winning nonprofit organization that collaborates with national researchers in developmental psychology, resilience and neuroscience to create and deliver evidence-based arts and mindfulness programs to K-12 schools.

You’ve taught yoga and meditation to people with addictions and eating disorders.  How does this help in their recovery process, and how do you integrate it with other aspects of their treatment program?

Mindfulness is at the root of many evidence-based treatment interventions for individuals struggling with mental health disorders and substance use disorders.  For example, CBT, DBT, TF-CBT, etc. all share mindfulness (deep breathing, meditation, gentle movement) as their core.  To highlight the mindfulness work separately, then, is assistive for those in recovery in that it helps individuals build the protective factors that mitigate risk for some of their symptoms.  

Mindfulness exercises like deep breathing (called pranayama in yoga), for example, have shown to calm anxiety and depressive disorders, while improving the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems.  Other mindfulness activities such as journal writing help an individual to share their feelings and regulate emotion – skills that have been shown to improve resilience and support the recovery process.  

When I work in a treatment setting (or in a support group setting for those in recovery), I integrate the mindfulness techniques in practical and engaging ways so the participants have a toolkit of resources to take home and use with them that evening.  For example, I will teach them a series of evidence-based breathing or journal writing techniques that they can choose to use when they are having difficulty sleeping late at night.  In this way, the work is extremely practical and useful – and something that can engage an entire family into the process of mindful living.

What are some potential challenges or dangers that can arise when working with people with addictions and eating disorders? What type of training should teachers have before trying yoga and/or meditation with these populations?

photo courtesy Nourish Recovery Yoga
Prior to teaching yoga / mindfulness to anyone, an individual should have training to understand exactly how to lead the array of techniques.  There are different categories of risks that come with this work.  For example, there may be risk of causing physical harm – when participating in even a simple breathing or movement exercise an individual may experience dizziness or increased anxiety.  

But there are other risks that could include turning off an individual to mindfulness work.  If an educator only introduces one or two techniques to their students, and this doesn’t appeal to the student, it may leave a negative impression in the student’s mind.  

This is actually the risk I see most in schools.  Kids are introduced to a mindfulness exercise that wasn’t taught properly, or they weren’t exposed to a myriad of different types of techniques so they never want to embark on yoga or mindfulness again.  These are the types of counter-indications that we review during the teacher training and professional development programs that we offer.

In addition, because we know that one in four individuals in America is currently struggling with a mental health disorder or substance use disorder (and at least 50% of those individuals haven’t been identified or treated yet, according to research out of UC Berkeley), we like to make sure that we treat every participant as if they may be at risk.  In order to do this, a mindfulness teacher should be trained in the various mental health disorders, as well as their root causes and treatment strategies.  This is particularly important for working in schools.  

Our mindfulness program for the classroom setting assumes that there will be children who may be struggling from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and who may be at risk for various mental health disorders as a result of these experiences.  Individuals who receive training on our mindfulness program in schools will learn a whole host of medical research and practical techniques for safely implementing the work in schools.  Most importantly, they learn a great deal about the mental health disorders that could be hiding under the surface and how to safely manage mental illness in the school setting using evidence-based practices.

We offer these trainings through Mental Fitness and our SHARPEN technology platform.  At SHARPEN, educators will find a series of evidence-based courses that outline all of the above (and much more).  The courses feature over 50 national researchers in documentary film format, so they bring the research directly to the educator.  The courses have been implemented in schools in 14 states with over 86% of educators improving their ability to manage mental health disorders in the school setting.

In a previous interview, Ronit Jinich explained how her experiences as a performer impact her work as a mindfulness teacher.  How has your own theater background influenced your teaching?

photo courtesy Nourish Recovery Yoga
Yes, I can’t stress enough the importance of the arts as a fabulous counterpart and sister to mindfulness.  I first learned yoga and mindfulness in graduate school where I was pursuing my Master’s in Fine Arts in acting.  Each day for three years we had several hours of voice training, then movement training, during which we were taught a whole host of mindfulness and yoga techniques.  It was Heaven!  I actually didn’t realize that they were mindfulness techniques until I became certified later in my career. 

The idea is that we need to integrate our body, mind and breath in order to be more present and aware of ourselves on (and off) the stage.  The voice techniques that we learned for Broadway, for example, increase the muscles around the core, the spine and the “back breathing” system.  It turns out that those Broadway breathing techniques that enable a performer to add volume and capacity to their voice, are also evidence-based techniquesfor improving self-acceptance, resilience and coping skills. 

Having taught acting and having performed on stage for over two decades, I can’t emphasize enough how the mindfulness work is absolutely critical to being a better performer… and how it has enabled me to be a more skilled mindfulness teacher later in life.  

On a pedestrian level, it makes the performer more aware of her body.  On a deeper level, the mindfulness work actually assists a person in defining and clarifying their own identity – something that many performers struggle with.

I would also add to this discussion that mindfulness and yoga are incredibly supportive to the athletic community.  There are some exciting programs that are now integrating mindfulness and yoga into sports teams in schools and universities with great success.  A cross country runner is able to meditate clearly and fully throughout a long-distance race, by using mindfulness strategies.  Similar to the performing arts, the skills learned through mindfulness have physical and psychological benefits that enhance performance on and off of the playing field.

How can participation in arts programs help kids to be more resilient in facing stress and mental disorders?

photo courtesy Nourish Recovery Yoga

In addition to the above, there is considerable research that shows how the arts build the protective factors that decrease risk for mental health disorders and actually improve brain functioning and development.  
  • The President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities published a fabulous report that reveals all kinds of evidence that the arts are the building blocks for brain development.  
  • A study out of UC Irvine showed that playing certain styles of music can increase prefrontal cortex development (the part of the brain responsible for stress management).  
  • Similarly, singing or playing an instrument forces the mind to “focus” on one fixed point or dristi as we say in yoga.  

By doing this, we are increasing a child’s ability to focus and concentrate in their daily lives.

Most significantly, the arts assist children in expressing themselves and building (or clarifying) identity.  There is now considerable research relating to the efficacy of expressive arts and experiential learning on the developing mind and resiliency.  

  • The arts help a child build 'mental fitness' protective factors like social-emotional skills (healthy communication through conflict, assertiveness skills, understanding feeling and emotion, etc.); 
  • The arts help students to know their boundaries; and 
  • The arts are a fabulous coping tool for stress management.  

When kids participate in the arts, they are also mitigating or managing risk for mental health disorders through “back door” learning.

We have a fabulous peer-led resilience program called FLOURISH whereby high school students learn the arts and mindfulness techniques from seven categories of mental fitness or resilience.  They learn the skills well enough to then teach elementary aged children the evidence-based techniques.  This not only an exciting way to engage both age groups in mindfulness and arts techniques, but a fabulous mentoring and role modeling platform.

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

Mindful teaching means modeling mindfulness in your own life.  If you simply “be” the mindful presence in your kids’ lives, they will start modeling mindfulness.  For example, if you start every day with a quick 1-2 minute practice in the classroom, you are not only teaching by showing students how to do it, you are helping them learn that mindfulness is something they can do each and every day with ease and little effort.  

I also know that mindful teaching means finding practical ways to incorporate mindfulness.  For example, just turning the light off in the classroom and asking kids to place their heads on their desk for 20 seconds is a mindfulness practice.  Asking the students to write an empowerment word like “Believe” or “Breathe” on a rock or piece of paper – that’s a mindfulness exercise.  The more creative and interested you are in your own mindfulness practice (and technique), the more you will inspire students.

What do you do in your own personal practice, and how does it help you with your work?

photo courtesy Nourish Recovery Yoga
I have a personal and a public practice – both of which help me with my work in the field.  In my personal practice, I try to do one at least one thing each day that is mindful.  That’s not always easy, of course, but it could be as simple as NOT answering a text … counting to 5 … then responding to the text.  It could mean doing a mindfulness exercise with essential oils (my favorite is direct-inhalation technique with something like Lemon or Tangerine).  My personal practice in the evening always includes the breathing technique Sama Vritti (equal part breath) – again even if I am only practicing for 2-3 rounds of breathing, it is something.

Because my schedule is so busy, I find it an absolute luxury to get to do a full yoga practice these days.  
  • I have a room in my home that is my yoga space, where I have a wall painted with chalkboard paint.  So my yoga practice begins by writing a word onto the yoga wall for that practice.  “Stillness” may be the theme that day.  “Receive” – whatever the word is, that tends to help me connect immediately with my practice.  
  • I also have a giant yoga music selection which is key for me.  Whether or not I actually have time to set up my diffuser with essential oils and engage in a full asana / physical yoga practice… just a few things each day help me center and connect with Self.

And then publicly, I average about 20 hours per week of teaching mindfulness to classroom teachers, leaders, administrators, students, therapists, parents, and patients.  By teaching them about mindfulness and the techniques for implementing 5 minute mindfulness exercises in schools, I am also benefitting from a practice, but while I'm teaching my focus is more outward rather than inward.

  • allows me to reconnect with my inner bliss or peace.  
  • has helped me find and maintain relationships that are authentic and rewarding.  
  • has led me to listen to my Higher or wisest Self – a place where I make the healthiest choices and decisions.  That place is where I can enter a challenge or conflict or important business discussion with grace and clarity.  It is the place where I feel connected to something greater than all of us and where I receive my own guidance.  

I started practicing 23 years ago and this “guidance” has led me to create an award-winning theatre company in New York that just celebrated its 15th year, a national nonprofit and its award-winning programs, and a technology platform that enables us to reach more individuals, teachers and families with messages of hope and healing.  Simply stated, the power of mindfulness in my life has simply been game-changing.


related posts:

8 Principles of Trauma-Informed Yoga and Mindfulness Teaching

Best Practices in Teaching Yoga and Mindfulness to Young Children (interview) 

5 Strategies for Building Resilience in Children and Youth

Teaching Yoga and Mindfulness to Students Affected by Trauma and Violence (interview)