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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Children's Author Teaches Yoga, Mindfulness, and Compassion (interview)

Susan Verde has bachelor's and master’s degrees in Elementary Education and Reading Remediation, and is a certified kids yoga and mindfulness instructor as well as an award-winning author of children’s books. Her upcoming books include Rock N Roll Soul (May 15th), I Am Human, and Hey, Wall! (about street art and community). Susan lives with her 3 children in East Hampton, NY and speaks and gives workshops throughout the United States at yoga studios and elementary, middle and high schools. 

Why did you choose to call your books I am Yoga and I am Peace rather than “I Do Yoga” and “I Feel Peace,” or “I Practice Yoga and Mindfulness”?

The practices of mindfulness and yoga are really ones that we embody, not just engage in at a distance. They are ways of being in the world. 

When I work with kids doing yoga and mindfulness they become the practice. When we are in tree pose they are trees…exploring how it feels in their minds and bodies. 

Once you understand that you are something, it informs how you live your life.

I am Peace gives examples of the internal benefits of mindfulness (“I know myself. I let things go.”) but also of how mindfulness can benefit others (“I can share kindness... I can make a difference.”) What’s your perspective on the connection between mindfulness and compassion?

If we are to get right down to the research, mindfulness practices have been shown to strengthen the parts of our brains that feel compassion and empathy. However, just from my own experiences I have seen and felt the connection. 

When we learn to be an observer of our feelings and emotions without judgment we learn to do the same for others. If you can be kind to yourself, you are much more capable of being kind to someone else. 

We all know that when we get caught up in our big emotions and don’t feel good about ourselves, it is nearly impossible to treat others with compassion. That is when we see bullying and behaviors that are hurtful. It all starts within us… kindness, noticing and letting go.

The Water Princess is based on the experiences of model and activist Georgie Badiel, who had to walk three hours every day to fetch water while growing up in Burkina Faso. In your opinion, how much should parents and teachers tell young children about the problems in the world so they feel encouraged to help rather than overwhelmed or traumatized?

Georgie is amazing and an inspiration. I think these kinds of conversations are important to have with your kids to cultivate empathy and broaden their perspective. But it is important to communicate in a way that they understand there are problems but there are also possibilities to help.

Of course we don’t want to traumatize anyone and things can feel overwhelming and scary. That is why we consider the audience (age, anxiety level, etc…) and choose ways to share that feel age-appropriate and hopeful. Picture books are great for that! That was my desire with The Water Princess. When Georgie told me her own story I shed a lot of tears, but both she and I wanted younger children to learn about the struggle in a way that made them feel hopeful and ask questions and also relate to the character’s child-like qualities.

In a recent post, my sister and I shared our perspective on the challenges of self-care for those of us working in the helping professions, especially when we also have family responsibilities. As the mother of three kids, do you have any advice on self-compassion and self-care for working parents?

I LOVE that you were talking about self-care!! The term is used a lot and can sometimes feel like a luxury or an impossibility when you are working and parenting AND on a budget. There are ways to care for yourself that are easy and accessible and so important. 

If you can’t take care of yourself it is so hard to care for others and what a good example for your kids to see you loving yourself. I have to admit, as a single mom of 3, my own care often has gone on the back burner, but I have made a more conscious effort to do things for me and it makes a huge difference. 

I highly recommend: 

  • 5 minutes of quiet meditation, 
  • a cup of tea, 
  • a post-it with a kind word to yourself, and 
  • diffusing some essential oils. 

Also, be open with your kids. Even when they are little, you can tell them you need some “me” time and they get it! 

Self-care doesn’t have to be a day at a spa. It can be as simple as 5 slow deep breaths that calm your nervous system. Most of all, forgive yourself. As a working parent, there can be a lot of guilt. Let it go…you are doing an amazing job!

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

Mindfulness is all about awareness. Noticing how you feel in your body and mind at any given moment. Being fully present to what is at hand. 

Mindful teaching is a way of being in the experience. Notice what is going on with you and then with your students. Preach what you practice and give whatever you are doing your full attention. 

There is an anagram I refer to: S.T.O.P. 

  • Stop. 
  • Take a breath. 
  • Observe. 
  • Proceed with kindness and compassion. 

This is mindful teaching.

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

I formally practice mindful meditation almost everyday. Sometimes for 5 minutes and sometimes 20 or more depending on my schedule. I find my breath and use it as an anchor and then notice my thoughts and bring my attention back to my breath. 
Informally I notice and use my breath and am kind to myself and try to be fully present when I am with my kids or students. 

Mindfulness is essential to my work. When I am writing, I can get stuck or frustrated, and mindfulness helps me let those feelings go and make a choice about how to proceed. Sometimes I will walk away from a piece and sometimes I will persist with more focus. 

When I am visiting a school or speaking in front of a large group, I notice the nervous feelings in my body and mind and I am able to observe them and often talk about them rather than letting them take over. 

My breath is really my greatest tool to help me feel grounded. The reality is that I sometimes still lose my temper or get caught up in my emotions but now I recover more quickly with more awareness and without judging myself. Noticing my responses allows me to explore them with curiosity and kindness. 

To bring it back to your first question, I feel at this point that I AM mindfulness…it is a part of me.
Photos and book covers courtesy Susan Verde.