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Helping a Child Through Grief & Loss

grieving boyEmotional loss is part of the human condition and, though painful, is part of our growth into caring, compassionate adults. Grief is the process through which we heal.

Many of us grow up without learning how to grieve in healthy ways, how to let go of the pain while keeping memory close. Often, the processing of our grief is something that waits until adulthood, when we become conscious of how early losses have impacted our lives.

While we usually associate grief with death, the variety of emotional loss is vast. And though it’s hard at any age, it’s even more so for children. Loss is something new, a shock to their sense of stability and security. A loved one dies. Parents divorce. A friend moves away or simply “disappears” from your world for no reason you can see.

The consequences of stifled childhood grief and unresolved loss can be destructive, to say the least, particularly over the long term.

Inclusion, Expression, Healing

Naturally, there’s often an urge to shield children from anything severely painful or even “negative.” Maybe it’s going on a “fun” trip while a parent moves out after a divorce or otherwise distracting the child from life-changing events. Maybe it’s not allowing a child to attend a family burial out of fear that the experience would be “too much” for them to take. Maybe it’s withholding details about the circumstances of death to out of a desire not to cause extra pain.

Yet feelings of exclusion and not knowing can actually worsen the pain and get in the way of healing. Inclusion, on the other hand, bolsters the healing process. As one study in the Journal of Death and Dying put it,

Our study indicates that it was very important for the children to be included in the rituals and accordingly be recognized as grievers alongside adults.

Being included contributes to legitimating their status as a “full” member of the family system, with an equal status to adult grievers in an important and vulnerable phase of the family’s life.

The children were pleased that they through ritual performances were given the opportunity to “see for themselves,” both in order to better comprehend and accept the reality of the loss and to take farewell with their loved ones.

Just as important as coming to comprehend and accept the reality of loss is having avenues through which to express grief. Indeed, that expression is central to healing. Clinically, we see that

With respect to effective interventions for loss-affected youths, validation of the loss, timely and genuine support, active listening and reflection, personal empowerment, and enduring compassion are paramount.

Also, given the comfort levels of individual youths for specific activities through which to express their grief after a loss, it is important to have a variety of developmentally appropriate activities/opportunities in which to engage children and adolescents.

Accordingly, loss-related support groups, individual and group-based psychological (therapeutic) interventions, and visual creative arts (drawing, painting), literary-based (bibliotherapy, journaling), and music-based activities have demonstrated varying degrees of clinical effectiveness with loss-affected youths.

Lynea recalls working with a kindergarten student once whose mother had recently died of a long illness. The teacher consulted with her, and the student’s father came in to tell her the details of the situation. Since the young girl had been withdrawn and didn’t talk about it, Lynea agreed to provide individual sand tray work with her.

therapy sand trayAt first, the girl’s play was typical to other kindergarten children – animals, fairies, and lots of babies. Then the work turned toward her mother. She chose a character from the shelf that looked like her mother, then buried her in the sand and told Lynea about all the people who came to see her and brought her flowers, bringing characters one by one from the shelf to show her.

Then she pulled the mother out of the sand. The character had flowers on her dress. “Look!” she said. “My mother got all of the flowers they gave her. They are on her dress!” Her eyes sparkled.

“We have to bury her again,” the girl said, “but this time we won’t bury her face.”

“We won’t bury her face?”

“No,” the girl stated. “We want to remember her face.” Then she gently brushed all of the sand away from the character’s face and began at last to tell Lynea about her mother.

Moving Beyond Anger & Pain

Learning how to grieve frees us to be fully alive, to embrace all of life, and to move beyond anger and pain and into acceptance.

9780996021975.MAINFacilitating that learning is what ultimately led Lynea to write her newest book, The Little Book of Healing: A Coloring Book for Grief and Loss. She kept the words simple, shining light on the wide variety of things we may experience or feel after any kind of loss, reassuring that our reactions are normal. And the book is designed to be colored, providing a soothing activity during the time of grief.

Her goal: to soothe and teach simultaneously, to show that grief is normal and safe on the route to healing and growing into caring, compassionate adults.

Here’s a sample…

Family LBH8
Jump RopeLBH8

Order copies of The Little Book of Healing now.

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How Trauma Changes the Brain, How Strength Transforms Trauma

By Lynea Gillen

young man with hurt expressionIt was clear that the young men in the psychiatric unit weren’t much interested in yoga. Struggling with addiction and mental health, they appeared cautious, wounded, apathetic. Lounging in their hospital scrubs, they shot us suspicious glances.

“We know you’ve had challenges,” I told them. “And we know that you’re very strong because of them. We’d like to hear about your strength. Tell us your stories.”

And as they did, the atmosphere in that room shifted. The young men transformed from victims into young warriors.

By the end of the class, we knew them as musicians and poets and writers. We knew how they felt connected to often villainized animals – cougars and foxes and wolves. We knew of their journeys and the strength and bravery it took to travel them.

Helping them see their experiences as heroic changed the stories they told about themselves and their trauma, encouraging their healing. The key? Focus on strength.

Trauma Changes the Developing Brain

brain activityOnly recently have we really begun to appreciate just how deeply trauma and “toxic stress” can impact a child’s development and, in turn, their future as an adult. Research has shown just how much these experiences affect the developing brain. Those changes, in turn, impact behavior and, crucially, a child’s ability to learn.

“You see deficits in your ability to regulate emotions in adaptive ways as a result of stress,” said Dr. Cara Wellman, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University.

Dendrites, which look like microscopic fingers, stretch off each brain cell to catch information. Wellman’s studies in mice show that chronic stress causes these fingers to shrink, changing the way the brain works. She found deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain needed to solve problems, which is crucial to learning.”

Other researchers link chronic stress to a host of cognitive effects, including trouble with attention, concentration, memory and creativity.

Recognizing this, more schools have shifted to a “trauma-informed” approach, focusing less on “bad” behavior, more on the issues that drive the behavior. In fact, there is

a national trend, driven by a massive, landmark public-health study called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, which showed that trauma, even among the study’s relatively middle-class participants, is far more common than previously believed.

The study found that almost two-thirds of adults experienced at least one traumatic event during childhood, through exposure to violence or personal abuse and neglect, findings since replicated by a number of other large studies.

Educators’ shift in attitude toward traumatized students has been hastened by parallel research showing that repeated or prolonged trauma can actually change a child’s brain. Neuroscientists have found that those altered brains — adapted for survival in the worst conditions — may cause traumatized children to react differently, struggling to connect with peers and adults and wrestling with basic language development and learning.

In other words, unaddressed trauma is an educational problem. Students consumed by sadness or anger are often unable to focus on learning.

Thus, the solution: Address the trauma.

A Strength-Based Approach to Trauma

Trauma is marked by a lack of safety and stability. Violence, abuse, poverty, homelessness, and other such destabilizing crises are, in fact, a kind of theft – a theft of security. Left in its place are challenging emotions such as fear, anger, and anxiety.

boys in warrior 1 poseFinding a place of strength from which to confront the trauma, we feel, is essential to long-term healing.

But intervention also means addressing the core components of complex trauma intervention identified by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. These include restoring a sense of safety, enhancing self-regulation, and developing ability to direct one’s attention.

Since stress and trauma reside in, and manifest through, the body’s physiology, learning to notice, tolerate, and manage somatic experience can substantially promote emotion regulation. Yoga, mindfulness and TRE® (Trauma Releasing Exercise) practices do just that – practices we teach in courses like our Transforming Childhood Trauma  course.

Importantly, the skills children learn when we help them from a strength-based approach are skills that can serve far beyond the immediate task of healing from their own trauma.

Strength Pays It Forward

While school social worker Mary T. Schmitz was completing her Yoga Calm certification, a tragedy hit her town and school. A mother drowned her two children and committed suicide. The children were students at Mary T.’s school. The mother had been a volunteer there. In fact, she had been there just a week before the killing.

Mary T. was part of the crisis response team called upon to support the second grade classroom in which one of murdered children had been a study. One of the tools she brought was Yoga Calm.

upward mountain pose“We did a week of learning in the body,” she says. “We did strength poses, worked on community activities, did a lot of grounding. They learned to find their place of strength and safety. There was lots of Warrior, Woodchopper, Mountain – those types of poses. We focused on strength, bravery, and community.”

A schoolwide memory event was discussed, but some felt that it would be “too much” for the younger kids to handle. Mary T. suggested having the second graders she had worked with teach what they had learned to the others in their grade. Staff were included, as well, especially the resistant ones. This beautiful moment of peers helping peers ultimately led to a district-wide buy-in of Yoga Calm and mindfulness training. Mary T. now trains others as her school’s Mindfulness Education Specialist. Even the principal is now certified in Yoga Calm! (Hear what students, parents, and others have to say about the implementation.)

But that’s not all of the story.

A few years later, the best friend and classmate of one of the murdered children was set to go to Girl Scout Camp. Her mom was a little apprehensive about it, concerned about her daughter’s possible anxiety. But while she went and was fine, many of the other girls were experiencing a lot of anxiety and homesickness.

The girl stepped up and volunteered to teach what she knew – the Yoga Calm she had learned back in second grade. When her mom later asked her about it, she said, “I just taught them what Mary T. taught us – how to go into Mountain.”

Join us in Portland, OR, April 29-30, 2017 for Transforming Childhood Trauma: Healing Heart, Mind & Body. CEUs, clock hours and graduate college credit are available. Full course description and registration info here.

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Low Back Pain? Kids Can Have It, Too. And Yoga Can Help (Tips Included!)

By Jim Gillen

low back painLow back pain is pretty common. It’s the top cause of disability worldwide. Over 30 million American adults have it right now. Maybe you’re one of them.

But it’s not something you normally associate with kids. The conventional wisdom is that children shouldn’t experience low back pain at all, and if they do, something pretty extreme is going on. Yet a new review of the scientific literature just published in JAMA Pediatrics shows that, in fact, it’s quite common. And the older kids get, the more common it becomes.

The report found that at age 7, about one percent of children experience low back pain. That number jumps to six percent at age 10, and 18 percent at ages 14 to 16.

Why Do Kids Experience Low Back Pain?

Interestingly, the authors found little reason to cast the usual blame on heavy backpacks as the problem. Nor did they point the finger at rising rates of youth obesity.

kids playing soccerMost cases of low back pain, they found stem from playing sports. Sometimes the issue is musculoskeletal overuse; sometimes, trauma. Growth spurts were also identified as another possible risk factor, along with previous injury and a family history of low back pain.

The sports connection, of course, underscores the importance of good guidance in training – just as we emphasize the importance of learning good alignment principles in Yoga Calm. It’s the foundation of preventing injury in other sports and activities, too.

And this is especially important for children.

Based on the review, because children and adolescents’ musculoskeletal systems are still developing they are at an increased risk to trauma and explosive muscle contractions, especially during periods of rapid growth. For this reason, evidence suggests the importance of pre-season sports conditioning programs and neuromuscular training that will allow the athlete to gradually increase his or her training intensity and help reduce injuries. Additionally, rest should be incorporated into the training regimen, especially for athletes who perform repetitive motions, such as tumbling in gymnastics. Young athletes should not participate in more hours of sports in a week than their number of age in years.

At the same time, though, there can sometimes be an over-focus and excessive training in a single sport. The pressure to specialize at a young age has never been stronger. But according to Dr. Ted Forcum – a former US Olympic medical team member who teaches in the Yoga Calm RYT program – having kids participate in a variety of sports and exercise activities up to the 13 to 16 age range leads to overall better motor and athletic development. And other experts concur.

So far, so straightforward, right?

It’s Not Just a Problem for Young Athletes

Lower back pain is also found more often among children who got very little exercise at all.

And that makes sense. The human body was designed to move. The less physically active we are, the more prone we become to injury or dysfunction, and the phenomenon only gets worse as we age. Indeed, the study also found that, while low back pain in youth is usually “benign” and “self-limiting,” it’s also a risk factor for back problems later on.

kids doing yogaThe physical poses of Yoga Calm address the needs of both of these most affected groups, the super active and the super sedentary. For the former, it gives them new movement patterns, core stability, and stretching to help prevent injury. And for the latter, it gets them up and moving, of course, while also having a positive impact on postural issues that can exacerbate back pain.

For athletes, yoga has increasingly become a part of training and conditioning up through the highest echelons of the sports world. As we noted before, pro athletes know the value of yoga and stretching to prevent injury. (The meditative aspects help, too. Broncos offensive tackle Russell Okung has said it’s just “as important as lifting weights and being out here on the field for practice.”)

Yoga’s Impact on Low Back Pain

Over the years, studies have delivered good evidence in yoga’s favor. A 2012 trial, for instance, found it to be quite effective at both improving function and reducing symptoms of chronic low back pain among adults, “with benefits lasting at least several months.” A 2016 review of 27 earlier studies concluded “that yoga can reduce pain and disability, can be practiced safely, and is well received by participants.

And just last month, Cochrane Reviews published a new survey of the literature. While more guarded in its conclusions – mainly owing to the quality of available studies – it, too, confirmed yoga’s value in dealing with low back pain, while stressing the need for more research.

At that, you may be thinking, “Okay, maybe my own back could benefit from a little yoga, as well.” Here’s a brief clip from my instructional yoga CD “Heart of the Teacher” to help you get started…

Soccer image by USAG-Humphreys, via Flickr





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Bullying on the Rise – What Do We Do About It?

bullyingThrough recent months, we’ve seen evidence of a lot more bullying going on, much of it attributed to the angry, polarizing 2016 US election. Recent research out of the University of Wisconsin seems to reinforce that impression.

“If we look at the 2013 data, about 12 percent of students told us that they had been bullied at school because of their race or their color. In 2016, it was 25 percent who said that they were bullied because of that,” said [Professor Justin] Patchin, co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

But Patchin said without more research it’s impossible to say what’s driving the increase.

And it’s important to remember, too, that bullying is not an exclusively American phenomenon. A UN report released just a few days ago found that, worldwide, about 246 million kids experience bullying in some form every year. Girls experience more cyberbullying; boys, more physical violence. Nearly a third of kids don’t tell anyone about the bullying.

The report found that all children and adolescents are at risk of school violence and bullying, but bullies target vulnerable factors, such as poverty or social status associated with ethnicity, linguistic or cultural differences, migration or displacement. Children who were disabled or looked different, such as being overweight or underweight, were also a prime target for bullying.

While the report offers the usual recommendations – create inclusive schools, collect data, educate students and teachers, and so on – we feel that the number one thing we can do to prevent bullying is to do more to nurture children’s emotional control and empathy.

In this recent post for Teaching Tolerance, Lynea discusses how this works…

Empathy: The Antidote to Bullying

By Lynea Gillen

boy looking determinedAs a long-time school counselor, it’s been clear to me that bullying doesn’t happen because a child happens to be a mean person or just plain “ignorant,” as is often asserted about adults who bully. What are the reasons for the meanness? Has the child had trouble in learning how to connect with others? Do they have a history of trauma that makes them feel unsafe? Do they need to dominate others to feel strong and secure?

If we look into the heart of bullying, what we often find are deficits of emotional control and empathy. Somewhere, somehow, social and emotional skills have gone lacking.

The positive effect of social emotional learning (SEL) interventions in bullying prevention, especially those that combine mindfulness practices, was nicely explained in a 2015 Educational Specialist article:

A group of five fifth graders in Cleveland County Schools were referred by teachers, counselors, and administrators to participate in a small group using a modified version of the MindUP curriculum. After the intervention group, students indicated more awareness of their own behavior, an increase in empathy, and in [sic] increase in emotional control.

In fact, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the leading U.S. organization advancing the development of research-based SEL, has identified self-awareness—the ability to accurately recognize our emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior—as a key core competency.

Mindfulness is the foundation. It’s not just some trendy, vague buzzword. It’s the practice of non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and surrounding environment—what’s happening right now. Mindfulness has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps regulate emotions and behaviors and consider the results of future actions. Without this kind of self-awareness, we remain at the mercy of our physical feelings and emotions, the drivers of much of our action.

mindful girlCultivating non-judgmental awareness means being less reactive, especially to “big” and unruly emotions, such as fear and anger. It means being less self-critical. Judging and criticizing oneself are often key attributes of those who bully, since they have often been bullied or abused themselves. (One 2007 study found that 72 percent of children who were physically abused by their parents went on to bully, become victims of bullying, or both.)

As a counselor, I see that, as students become able to self-regulate and “sit” with their feelings and emotions, they grow more aware of their needs and begin to see the connections between their needs and their behavior. They might see, for instance, that they’re meaner on days when they haven’t had enough sleep, are hungry or have been part of a family disagreement. By learning how to observe without reacting to strong emotions and then tend to their needs, they pave the way to becoming more in control of their behavior. This also sets the foundation for learning how to recognize these same emotions and needs in others.

I can’t help but think of the day when one of my most explosive students showed his newly developed ability to empathize by recognizing a classmate’s distress. “Hey, Mrs. Gillen,” he said, “he just needs to do child pose with a blanket over him.” He thought about his classmate’s needs.

Social awareness and skill development then build on the foundation of mindfulness. By understanding what affects their emotions and actions, students can gain insight into others’. By practicing communication, positive leadership, problem solving and other social skills, we, as educators, create an environment where the potential for bullying is reduced.

When I teach Yoga Calm classes in schools or in private practice, mindfulness is where we start. We work on activities that develop the principles of stillness and listening. The children learn how to calm their bodies and then listen to themselves—what their hearts, minds and bodies are “saying.”

Breathing SphereOften, we start just with breathing techniques, such as having one student lead the class in taking five to 10 breaths together, breathing in synchrony with the opening and closing of a colorful Hoberman Sphere. Afterward, I encourage the class to compliment the student in front on their leadership.

Another activity we do is Heart Thoughts, a simple-yet-powerful process combining the regulating effect of breath retention and slow exhalation with thinking of another’s needs. As each student places their hands together at their heart, the leader asks them to close their eyes and think of someone they care about—even a pet!—who might be having a hard time. Then together, the students breathe in, pause, raise their arms above their heads and exhale, extending their arms outward and then returning their hands to their hearts. Each time they exhale, they send their heart thoughts to whomever they were thinking of.

Once we’ve finished, students often like to talk about who they sent their heart thoughts to. This creates even more opportunities for students to get to know their classmates’ lives and gain insight into the feelings and challenges they face.

Empathy begins here. And it is the antidote to bullying.

Ready to learn more about bringing mindfulness into your work with children? Join us for one of our two newest courses, the 2-day Mindfulness for Educators introduction and the 8-week Mindful Teaching course – or take our established online course Mindfulness and the Brain at your convenience!

Bullying image by Elizabet21, via Wikimedia Commons

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Resolution: Bringing What Matters into Focus

By Jim Gillen

My first yoga class of the year is always a big one – as many as 50 people squeezing into a small space, each wanting to start off the new year right. Usually, I ask my students about their “resolutions.” This year, I asked a different question:

Reflecting on last year, what is it about your life that you love and would like to have more of?

daydreaming womanTheir faces lit up as they shared stories of loved ones, families and friends, travel, good food, times in nature and the joys of volunteering. Gone were the looks of guilt from years past when students recited their resolutions to lose weight, work less, save money, and the like.

Such a stark contrast shows how resolutions easily feel like another “should” in a life full of shoulds – a demand for more effort in a world already requiring so much from us. It can almost feel like a kind of self-aggression.

Our Negativity Bias

While it’s important to look at ourselves realistically and note what is not working, we can get stuck viewing ourselves and the world from a glass half-empty perspective. We do have an inborn “negativity bias,” after all. As psychologist and neuroscientist Rick Hanson puts it, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.”

As the brain evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences – if one survived them! “Once burned, twice shy.” So the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time.

So we need to practice focusing on the positives – hence, my New Year’s question. And as we noted earlier, the more we practice, the more we can widen our perspective on life’s experience. At the same time, we can bring into greater resolution – pun intended – those things that make life worth living, those things that bring us joy and motivate us.

What if this year, instead of focusing on deficiencies, declaring what we must do or change about ourselves, we cast our vision on what we want to spend our time doing? Instead of “I resolve to make more time for myself,” why not “How can I find more joy in my days?”

Crucially, any important, lasting change seldom comes all at once. Change is process. This wonderful video puts this into memorable perspective:

Yes, we can go further and commit to a worldview that puts today’s problems in the context of a larger hope. (Think of how far we have come with civil rights!) When we take a leap of faith for a greater truth or mission or love, we can focus on the things that really matter.

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Yoga for the Holidays, Strengthening Family Ties

By Lynea Gillen

I recently led a yoga class for a family that has been involved in Yoga Calm for several years now. About halfway through, one of the older girls who hadn’t practiced in a while quietly said, “It’s good to be back.” Her mother smiled.

Yes, it is good to be back. Back to a quiet, open room. To a sense of peace in the body and shared movement with family and friends. It’s good every time, but we feel it more when we’ve been away from these things longer than we may have preferred.

Returning to Our Practice

child poseLife can have a way of interfering with our best intentions. Pulled between responsibilities at work and home alike, we cope by letting some things slide – even things we know are good for us, that will give us more strength, energy, and resilience in the long run.

The long, dark days of winter allow us to come back to the practice of self care. That practice helps us through the moments when family gatherings get tense or stress takes hold of us – moments that all too often accompany the joy and fun of the holiday season.

Mindful, we can read each situation for what it is, acknowledge our emotional response, and choose to act from a place of loving kindness, whether towards others or ourselves.

Yoga for the Whole Family

In terms of natural cycles, winter is a time of quiet, of hibernation, of preparation for new growth in the not-so-distant future. Culturally, it’s a time of coming together, of community.

family yogaAnd it’s a perfect time for the family to do yoga together. The sharing is powerful. The peace is welcome. And all gain by it, becoming more grounded and mindful in the process.

It can be a good “time out,” as well – respite from the busy-ness of the holidays; a time not to do but simply to be…and to be restored, ready for the next round of gatherings and celebrations.

As we head toward the heart of this most festive time of year, I encourage you to make yoga a part of your family’s plans. Attend classes together or simply practice together at home. And commit to making it a part of your family routine as you head into the new year – just as you might family dinners or game night or movie night or other activities you enjoy as a group.

There are so many benefits, beyond just creating a more peaceful and relaxed home. Children come to see exercise as a normal and fun part of life, not something you go off and do by yourself as though it were some chore. It can help them develop a healthy body image and better self-awareness and regulation. It creates opportunities for dialogue.

Yoga can be one more way of making your family ties stronger – and your family itself, stronger.

Whichever occasions you observe, however you honor and celebrate them, both Jim and I wish you a joy-filled holiday season and a happy, healthy start to 2017!

Color image by Anne Wu; b&w image by sunchild123, via Flickr

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A Solution for Teacher Burnout: Yoga & Mindfulness

By Lynea Gillen

If you work in the schools, you may already be counting down the days until winter break is finally here. It’s a welcome opportunity to catch your breath, relax, recharge – well, after all the holiday shopping and baking and everything else is done, though even that can feel like a respite from the stress teaching can pour on these days.

In fact, according to a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Prevention Research Center at Penn State, almost half of all teachers report high daily stress. Nearly half leave the profession within their first five years because of it.

And it’s not just the stressed-out teacher who suffers. Student performance suffers, as well – academically and socially.

An Antidote to Teacher Burnout

As we’ve noted before, there is plenty that we can do to become more resilient in the face of such stress, as well as address the needs of our students. Mindfulness is where it begins.

mindfulnessResearch has found that “personal training in mindfulness skills can increase teachers’ sense of well-being and teaching self-efficacy, as well as their ability to manage classroom behavior and establish and maintain supportive relationships with students.”

“Neuroscience,” the authors of this 2012 study go on to say, “offers insights into how and why mindfulness training may offer such support.”

Two decades of neuroscientific, medical, and psychological research with adults provide accumulating evidence that, like other individuals, teachers can benefit personally and professionally from the reflective discipline of mindfulness. While this discipline is grounded in attention and awareness, its researched effects are wide-ranging and involve measurable physiological and psychological benefits through a reduction in stress physiology and through measurable changes in the function and structure of diverse areas of the brain.

Other research has found that mindfulness, like yoga in general, not only promotes better self-regulation but also more positive emotional states, which bring their own mental and physical benefits, as well.

Unsurprisingly, this has been shown to have a positive impact on teacher retention – less burnout, more successful classrooms.

We hear this consistently from teachers who learn Yoga Calm – how they find themselves and their teaching revitalized through the yoga and mindfulness practice. And it gives them the tools and techniques they need to support their own students’ physical and emotional health, creating calmer, more harmonious classrooms, improved behavior, and enhanced academic performance.

Those kinds of achievements do wonders for lowering stress, too.

A Simple Mindfulness Tool

TV remoteOne of the mindfulness tools we use with students – and that works with adults, too! – is “Changing Channels.” Whenever you’re under a great deal of stress, it’s easy to get stuck on a negative channel.

So when I worked with teens, I would ask them what channel they had their minds on during the day. Did they focus on fear or could they shift into more positive thoughts?

What happens when they change the channel?

We developed our Mindful Moment cards to help children practice changing the channel. Every morning, we would shift our minds to a positive memory, a thought about our lives, or a vision for the future. And in our new mindfulness courses for educators (see the end of this post), we similarly explore how energy follows attention and how our recurring “self-talk” and mental conditioning can color our perception of the world.

It’s not about avoiding difficult situations or distracting ourselves but about bringing ourselves back to the gifts of the present moment and developing compassion and understanding for ourselves.

Of course, that’s why most of us are in the teaching profession in the first place, to be with our students in a compassionate and loving way.

In response to teacher needs, we have partnered with Portland’s Peace in Schools program, which created the first for-credit high school mindfulness program in the country. Our three new Mindfulness for Educators courses with them are specifically designed to help you with your stress as you learn mindfulness as a personal practice and pedagogical tool

  • Mindfulness & The Brain (12-hour online course)
  • Mindfulness for Educators: An Introductory Weekend, March 4 – 5, 2017, Portland OR
  • Mindful Teaching: An Experiential 8-Week Course for Educators, March 30 – May 18, 2017, Portland, OR

To get word on when registration opens for the live, in-person courses, as well as info on other events and resources, subscribe to our free weekly newsletter – or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter!

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Seeing Our Strengths, Transforming Childhood Trauma

When you’re in pain, support is essential. So is releasing sorrow and anger. But we can get trapped in these emotions, too – ruminate and recreate them in our lives, over and over and again.

One way I know that the kids I counsel are getting healthier emotionally is when I see them begin to identify with their strengths more than their wounds. So, I find it helpful to encourage them to develop practices that help them connect with their gifts.

Here, I think about a boy in a middle school class I once taught. He had a really hard time expressing his strong emotions, rooted in early childhood trauma. He often had fits of anger and was easily triggered. The other kids would often tease him about this, which only led him to act out more and wind up in detention.

But in yoga class, he excelled in some of the harder poses. His peers noticed, and during our compliment processes, they often acknowledged his skill.

His transformation was beautiful to see. He would come into class with his head slumped forward – and leave tall and strong, carrying his mat over his shoulder with an obvious sense of pride. You could see him starting to “own” the positive attributes he could now see in himself. You could see him moving toward the beauty of the fierce passion that lived inside of him.

Planting Positive Seeds

new plantsThere can be no growth – and certainly no flourishing – when our focus is mainly on confronting the negative. As my husband Jim, an avid gardener, likes to say, “You can’t just weed all the time. You need to plant lots of new, desirable plants, too, to outcompete the weeds.”

That’s why, as we wrote in our first book, Yoga Calm for Children,

One of our goals…is to plant and strengthen positive seeds and provide support and education about the negative seeds that have already been planted. If, for instance, alcoholism is present, it is not effective to push that memory away…. To do this can actually strengthen the seed’s power. Secrecy develops fear and curiosity, and may in fact draw a person toward that seed. Consider the phrase, “Don’t think of a brown bear.” Immediately, the mind goes to the image, however hard you try not to think about it.

At the same time, it is important not to overemphasize a seed by discussing it daily—which can also add power to a negative influence. Telling the story of alcoholism over and over in a family system strengthens the fear and belief that the pattern will be repeated.

The idea in Yoga Calm is to acknowledge the negative seeds, allow the feelings to emerge, then plant many positive seeds to help the individual walk a path leading toward a constructive rather than destructive lifestyle.

Working from Places of Strength

Over and again in my 30+ years of working with youth and adults, I have found this strength-based approach to be extremely effective. And since the broad emergence of such approaches back in the last decades of the 20th century, a wide variety of studies have confirmed their benefit.

Strengths have been linked to prediction of positive outcomes. In a study, providing the multi-disciplinary team with strength-based data resulted in better academic, social and overall outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral disorders as compared to traditional socio-emotive report that focused on the problems that students were facing.

This suggests the possible usefulness of strength-based assessment. Indeed, in another study on children and adolescents living in residential homes, the level of strengths significantly predicted success in the reduction of risk behaviors. Even in the community, studies have shown the importance of focusing on strengths rather than deficits. Strengths assessments were associated with good behavioral functioning and greater competencies.

A strengths approach offers a genuine basis for people taking control of their own lives in meaningful and sustainable ways. These include

  • Focus on trusting and workable relationships.
  • Working in collaborative ways on mutually agreed upon goals.
  • Drawing upon the personal resources of motivation and hope.
  • Creating sustainable change through learning and experiential growth.
  • Empowering people to take a lead in their own care process.

Transforming Childhood Trauma

young girlThe statistics on stress and trauma are daunting, but there’s new hope with strength-based approaches that include self-care tools such as yoga to complement existing approaches.

Since stress and trauma reside in, and manifest through, the body’s physiology, learning to notice, tolerate, and manage somatic experience can substantially promote emotion regulation and self-efficacy. Yoga, mindfulness and Trauma Releasing Exercises (learn more about TRE) do just that — promoting somatic regulation and interoceptive awareness.

For as trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk has noted, trauma is not a cognitive state. It’s a physical experience. And just as a body was once “reset” to respond to the world as a dangerous place – traumatized – so it can be reset again through somatic therapies.

Resilience can be learned. And strength is where we begin.

You can learn new tools for a strength‐based approach in classroom and therapeutic settings with our newest course, “Transforming Childhood Trauma: Healing Heart, Mind and Body.” Join Yoga Calm co-founder Lynea Gillen and Yoga Calm national training manager Kathy Flaminio for a two-day workshop in St. Paul, March 18 – 19 or in Portland, April 29 – 30, 2017.

In this two-day course, you will learn a strength‐based approach for working with childhood trauma that engages the whole child, including their physical, mental, and emotional resources to promote healing, develop resilience and support growth.

You’ll learn to integrate evidence-based tools such as yoga, mindfulness, Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE), and social-emotional learning activities into your work with youth (ages 3‐18) to safely release stress, regulate the nervous system, express and integrate feelings, and attend to the present moment.

Putting theory into practice, you will also learn how to build resilience “toolkits” and lesson/treatment plans from identified family and cultural strengths, community support, and self‐care practices.

Register now!

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Cultivating More Positive Emotions

the limbic lobeThe idea of an “emotional bank account” isn’t just a nice psychological metaphor. Science backs it up.

Just last month, a new study in Nature Neuroscience shed new light on the relationship between positive and negative memories – memories that are processed in the amygdala, a cluster of neurons deep in the brain. By inhibiting the activity of either fear- or reward-encoding neurons, the researchers found that they could affect the formation of memories in mice.

They found that when [fear-encoding] neurons were inhibited, mice could not form fearful memories, and when [reward-encoding] neurons were inhibited, they could not form positive memories.

The researchers also discovered that each population of neurons can inhibit the other: When they stimulated activity in the reward neurons, activity in the fear neurons was suppressed, and vice versa. This suggests that the brain constantly balances activity between these two populations of neurons.

“Ultimately what we have is a seesaw between positive and negative,” Kim says. “It’s highly speculative, but anxiety and depression symptoms may be the result of an imbalance between these two populations.”

We Need Both Positive & Negative Emotions

The idea of balance is borne out in the psychological literature, as well. While psychologists such as Dr. Gottman have recommended an ideal ratio of 5 good experiences to each bad one, a 2005 study in American Psychologist found that the “tipping point” was 3 to 1. That was the minimum needed, the authors suggested, for a healthy and happy life.

But there’s a role for negative emotions, as well. According to the author of the tipping point study, Barbara Frederickson,

Negative emotions…are necessary for us to flourish, and positive emotions are by nature subtle and fleeting; the secret is not to deny their transience but to find ways to increase [the quantity of positive emotions]. She recommends that, rather than try to eliminate negativity, we balance negative feelings with positive ones. Below a certain ratio of positive to negative, Fredrickson says, people get pulled into downward spirals, their behavior becomes rigid and predictable, and they begin to feel burdened and lifeless.

It’s all about balance. And mindfulness is where it begins.

SEL Starts with Mindfulness

meditation tagAs we’ve noted before, mindfulness is the foundation for the full range of social and emotional skills we’re called to nurture in children. After all, you can’t even begin to develop emotional intelligence without first having basic awareness of your thoughts and emotions – and the fact that we can control them and that they can affect our performance.

This is also why yoga is such a good match for SEL. It, too, rests upon mindfulness.

Frederickson, too, notes that mindfulness may also help us cultivate more positive emotions, helping keep our emotional bank account properly balanced. As she said in a 2009 interview in The Sun,

One way [to cultivate more positive emotions] is to be aware of the present moment, because most moments are positive. We miss many opportunities to experience positive emotions now by thinking too much about the past or worrying about the future, rather than being open to what is.

In these anxious, uncertain times, we could all benefit from this – and helping the children in our lives develop the emotional intelligence that will help them stay strong, resilient, and capable.

Learn more about how to bring positive emotions into your classroom, home and therapeutic sessions with Lynea Gillen’s free Social/Emotional Learning (SEL) webinar this Sunday, November 27, 4-5pm. In it, you’ll learn three stress busters for you and your students, how to develop SEL skills with preK-12 youth, how to deal with disruptive behavior and how to develop Grit – emotional strength and resilience. Register now!

Brain image by OpenStax College, via Wikimedia Commons;
kids image by Todd Fahrner, via Flickr

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Investing in Your Emotional Bank Account

The run-up to Thanksgiving can be a frantic, stressful time – preparing for guests or preparing to travel, trying to get everything done that needs doing. But once the holiday comes, it’s a welcome opportunity to relax for a few days, connect with family and friends, have fun.

For a lot of folks, “fun” involves at least a little movie time. Maybe you’ll take your kids out to catch Moana or Fantastic Beasts or another new release. Maybe you’ll hunker down at home, nosh on leftovers, and watch some old favorites.

Pixar's Inside OutOne movie our granddaughter Anna is apt to ask for is Inside Out, a favorite since she first saw it last year. It really made quite an impression on her, though we didn’t really realize this until a few weeks later. Out of the blue one day, Anna asked Lynea if she wanted to know what her “core memories” were. Lynea curiously said yes.

“My core memories are riding bikes, skiing, and swimming with you and Grandpa” – fun family times!

If you’ve seen the film, you may remember how “core memories” were the moments that defined the young heroine Riley’s personality – scoring her first hockey goal, playing with her best friend Meg, making cookies with her parents. Core memories are the root of self-esteem (or lack of it), of security (or lack of it), of who we understand ourselves to be.

The psychological truth in this film – though necessarily simplified – is a good part of its power and makes it an excellent tool for helping kids understand how their emotions work. In fact, one of the scientific advisors to the film, UC Berkley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, shared a powerful anecdote about this in an interview with Pacific Standard:

I got an email from a mom who took her highly functioning autistic boy to the movie, and seeing the movie was the first time that this young guy had insight into his emotional difficulty. He said: “Mom, I know I have anger, fear, and disgust, but I really struggle with sadness and joy — I don’t know where they are.” And she said it was their breakthrough moment. I was blown away.

Throughout the film, we see the effect of emotions on memory, learning in the process that there’s a role for them all, even sadness. Coming to understand this is the foundation of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence. And just as key is creating positive memories to guide and sustain us.

emotional bank accountDr. John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, has spoken of memory as kin to a banking account. We need to “deposit” lots of good experiences and memories with each other to make up for the hard times that life will inevitably throw at us and can occur in our relationships, as well. He recommends “investing” in our important relationships to try to get to at least five good experiences for each “bad” one.

It’s a great way of looking at it. What can you do today to build up your emotional bank account?

The movie reflects this quite well, and Gottman has even blogged about how to extend the its benefits, too. We encourage you to check out his post “12 Ways to Use Inside Out to Teach Emotional Intelligence” (as well as this excellent post by parenting specialist Dr. Laura Kastner) – and then add a new good experience to your memory’s bank account by watching the movie together this Thanksgiving holiday!

We also encourage you to join us for our next free webinar on Sunday, November 27, when Lynea will talk about – and answer your questions about – social-emotional learning as the foundation for success in school and life. Sign up now!

Bank image via The Marriage and Family Clinic

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