When I hear the word “resilient” I often think of these skinny little baby trees that are planted around New York City. They tend to have these braces to hold them to the earth to stay rooted and they don’t get blown around. When I think resiliency and young people I think of them sort of being these trees that could be blown around. If it weren’t for the snow and the wind and just the elements being in an urban environment, these trees would be fine. You see trees in nature all the time not needing that additional support to keep them rooted and to keep them growing.
When I think of resiliency it comes from not being rooted. It comes from being blown around. It comes from living in a world and culture where there’s a lot of oppression. There is a history and trauma of racism. There is systemic and legalized oppression happening in this country and so we want to really celebrate children being resilient but we really need to understand they are resilient because they come from a culture from a system that’s constantly trying to knock them down historically, generationally and also community-wide.
The Relationships Between Trauma and Resilience
Whether their parents are getting a divorce or the other issues I named, the embodiment really helps kids to release, to just break through some of that energy that’s built up in the body. Often times the trauma in our body continues because we don’t have a release for it. So the body, can I take you through the cycle of trauma?
The body is at homeostasis and then we recognize there is something that is alarming so the body checks it out to see if this is something we can stay for or we need to take off from and then the body moves into “fight or flight” if there is something going on. You can see animals of nature, naturally shake it off when once it moves past the thing that brought fear or trauma into their bodies, they are able to shake it off and move back into homeostasis.
So often for young people living in marginalized communities, living in communities without resources, witnessing violence in their home, on television, in the media, having a heavy police presence in their communities makes them feel like they had to be on high alert all the time. There is this hyper-vigilance that arises in many of our children so without having the proper resource to let go they are constantly in this state of always being on this hypervigilance. We need to allow them to discharge, that release to happen in their body and that is where movement practice comes in. It allows us to move through it, to have autonomy in the body, to have agency on the body especially if agency of our body has been taken away through violence. It can be incredibly healing and incredibly liberating for young people to have to explore mobility in their own body on their own terms. (Bold removed; Kaleigh on camera during all of this)
I think it’s really important for us to ask the question why. Why do we want to offer these practices? Are we trying to control the environment, are we trying to quiet the kids down so we can then give them the teachings that we want to from the classroom? I think it’s really important for us to investigate those reasons why to really see what our motivations are. If it is to control the environment is there another way we can do that? Mindfulness is really to allow a sense of liberation and freedom in the body it’s not to control so it’s important for us to be really clear with the reasons why.
It’s also really important for us to engage in our own practice, to have our own practice so that when there is silence in the room when there is a pause and kids begin to feel and notice things that are arising, we know what that is like. We can imagine what that’s like because we also have a practice. Not everybody’s experience is going to be the same but if we have our own practice we can normalize and say, “yeah, that also happened to me what do you think that is about?” so we can engage in relationship about this shared practice as opposed to it being a talk down thing, “I’m telling you and you do what I say.”
Young people have said, “You’re so calm, you’re always so happy, how do I be like that?” and I’m like, “That’s the practice.” They think they see it and they’re like, ” you just sit there and say Kumbaya and leave your body in weird poses” but for them to see the benefit how it manifests after we practice, that’s what they what so it’s so important for us to know that for themselves and for them to see it and what to have that. It’s a much easier entryway if they are asking for what you’ve got.
Preparing Children for Mindfulness Practice
So, for setting folks up for practice I think it’s really important for us to really allow them to be set up for success. Often times we just instruct kids to take a posture, close your eyes and watch your breath. Meanwhile, there is all this energy moving through the body, or we don’t know what it feels like to watch our breath or to feel our breath in our body. Where so many of our young people they don’t really have a nuance of sensation in their body sometimes due to trauma, so I like really do an engaged setup in the body, so we can really feel everything before we move into our practice.
Typically, in a classroom setting, kids are sitting in chairs, usually at their desk so I ask them to bring their feet on the ground underneath their knees. We want to find out where our hips, bring the knees directly in front of the hips and bring the ankles directly under the knees so that the legs are in a 90-degree angle. You want the feet to look like the number eleven, so they’re not doing this and not doing this, they’re like the number eleven.
I offer two different ways. We can do this next piece with our feet or with our hands, so I’ll show you both ways. First, with the hands, I like to lift the hands up, spread them as wide as I can and then placing the hands down on the outer edge and moving to the inner edge. So, really feeling each finger connecting to the leg. Lifting the fingers up again, placing the inner edge of the hands down and then moving towards the outer edge. Notice the sensation on the leg and also on the hands as place each finger down onto the leg. Breathing in, bringing shoulders up to your ears and as you exhale bring some weight towards the elbows. It pulls the shoulders away from the ears. It allows the arms to be heavy.
If I’m wo rking with the feet, I’ll invite them to lift the toes up, spreading the toes wide and starting from the outer edge of my foot seeing if I can put each individual toe down one at a time, which is impossible to do but also a really fun thing for kids to try and play around and figure out how to do this.
Also, to lift the toes up again, starting from the inner edge placing my big toe down and moving to the outer edge of the foot. Lifting the heel up. I tend to model with my hands as well as my feet. Then I place my heels down again and then from here see if I can feel my feet getting really wide, or my palms of my hands getting really wide. Really rooting down into the ground. We even invite them to kind of move a little bit, so they can really feel what it feels like to place the four corners; the bottoms of the feet or the hands on to the legs or on to the floor. Then I invite them to engage their calf muscles. Gently flex their calf muscles, so we know where the bottom of the leg is. Also, when I’m offering mindfulness to young people I’m constantly asking them, “Do you feel that? What’s going on there? Were you able to put all your toes down?”
It’s a very engaged practice. Knowing what it feels like for the knees to round. Feeling the base of your body between your kneecaps, in your hip joints so part of your leg may be resting on the seat, part of it may be hanging in mid-air, so you can feel the difference between the front part of your upper leg, and the back part of your upper leg. Can you notice how the temperature of your hands might be, you might be feeling that through your legs so are your legs making your hands warmer or colder or are your hands making your legs warmer or colder? Just feeling into that sensation and noticing Ischium.
We’ve got these ischial bones, it’s these pointy bones that are at the bottom of our pelvis, feels like these butt bones. You kind of want to move from side to side so we can really feel them. Moving frontwards and then moving backwards. Sometimes when we’re excited we lean the body forward and sometimes we really don’t what to engage with something we kind of lean back or lean a little bit to the right, or a little bit to the left and let’s just see what it feels like to be right here in the middle. Right here in this present moment, feeling the feet rooted down into the earth, knowing where the legs are but also feeling where the bottom half of your body, this heavy pelvic bone, to feel really grounded into the earth.
I like to bring my hands to my belly and as I breathe in to see if I can expand my belly like a balloon so allowing the belly to be really soft as I expand out. As I exhale let all the air out letting my fingers come closer together. Imagine my bellybutton is sliding back toward my spine. Breathing in again, expanding the belly and exhale letting all that air out feeling the hands come closer together. Doing this a few more times. Do we really know what a belly breath feels like?
A lot of our kids will have anxiety, they’ll have asthma due to the environments that they live in so having a breath that is higher that is up in the nostrils and upper part of the chest and actually activate asthma and bring more anxiety to the body. When I work with the young folks I really invite them to keep the breath as low as possible. This is a good way for them to explore and to feel and to know what it’s like to have a belly breath. Then I’ll bring my hands down to my lap. To see if they can expand the belly, slide up and up and across the shoulder blades, so the chest is lifted with pride and dignity, a sense of nobility and then as you exhale you can bring weight to the elbows, so the shoulders slide away from the ears.
Often times we’ll walk around like this and people say to “relax the shoulders” and so we put as much pressure if I try to put the shoulders down. Actually adds more strain and more stress to the body. If we focus on bringing weight to the elbows it just allows the whole body to slide down together. Asking them to notice the stillness of the vocal cords if they’re being silent.
For a lot of folks we hold a lot of pressure in our jaw so if put your tongue behind your teeth having it rest on the back of your teeth, it allows your jaw to have more slack to release. Maybe even asking them to part the lips just a little bit, maybe to move the jaw back and forth so we can look like that. Feeling the heaviness of the earlobes. Noticing as we breathe in might feel the breath being warm as it breathes into the nostrils. At the top of the breath there might be swirl and then the breath comes out through the nostrils, and it may feel a little bit warmer on the tip of the nose there. See if they can explore the coolness of the breath as it breathes in, the swirl at the top of the breath and how that same breath turns into an out breath. Doing that for just a moment.
Then with the eyes, I never offer kids to close their eyes. I don’t put that as an option. What I often say is, “You can look forward keeping your eyes soft” as a way of looking without seeing. Finding a spot on the wall in front of you, something that’s not moving and see if you can bring your attention or your gaze there. Allowing the eyes to be soft, so we’re not really looking hard at something trying to figure out what it is but allowing something to be in front of our eyes. That’s one way of holding the eyes. They can also look down to the tip of their nose or look down to a spot on the ground that’s maybe five or seven feet in front of them.
For some people, they will naturally go ahead and close their eyes and that’s fine but just don’t offer them those other options to normalize. It might always feel the safest for folks to have their eyes closed. Seeing if they can notice a softness between their eyebrows. Some folks there is a very deep focusing and concentration to get it right at this point. Sometimes I even have them bring their fingers up towards their eyebrows massage and soften that space between the eyes crossing the forehead.
Lift up through the crown of the head. They can feel it out to the center of the head or where the three parts of the skull come together there is a little bit of a divot there. Welcome them to feel it and most people haven’t even noticed that before, so it’s a fun anatomical game to play with the kids that happen to feel the top of their heads. You want to lift up from there and bring the hands back down.
That is the way I like to set folks up for a sitting posture, and I also like to offer some somatic experiencing techniques. For a lot of folks, whether you are a child or adult, trauma or not, something about having the silent, something we aren’t used to in our culture can feel a little certain way for certain people, so they begin to feel disconnected from the body or like they are floating. They can come back from simply tapping on their chest. This is again a little bit of a discharge practice. Kind of begin to feel the breaking down of energy, this sense of calm and also creating a rhythm in the body. Allows your body to have more rest. That’s one of the things I love to do, rest.
Bringing one hand to the heart and one hand to the belly can also give folks just a way of connecting and feeling grounded of knowing where their body is in this practice. I also love to reach down and touch the earth, as well while still holding on to the heart. If folks are really feeling out of their body they can also bring their hands over top of their deltoids, that fleshy part under the shoulders, so a really beautiful somatic hold that also really allows a sense of safety and holding. Bringing a hand under the armpit and do the same. If there is a great sense of overwhelm, there is also this posture, one hand over the forehead and another one at the base of the neck. Again just a very grounding posture.
I offer these before I set folks up for meditation so again there’s autonomy, there’s agency, it allows them to stay if they feel like they are being ripped and out of their practice there is something they can do that allows them to stay. Then to proceed with whatever mindfulness practice you’re offering today, but it’s so important to set them up so that they are ready and set up for success.