When I first began teaching with Shanthi Project, it didn’t take long to appreciate the power of mindfulness to help kids connect with themselves. Through movement, breath, and even silence, they learned to listen internally and notice their own feelings. From session to session, I heard kids ask again and again, “Are we gonna sit quiet today?”
Quietness resonated with them; they needed it. I found myself thinking that if my students’ only takeaway was that ‘sitting quietly’ makes them feel positive, then I’d done a good job.
Shifting into Mindfulness
Before becoming a mindfulness teacher, I had been involved with Shanthi Project on-and-off for five years. At that point, I was still deep in my career as a speech therapist in schools. For those years, I took part in Shanthi’s after-school programs and summer sessions teaching yoga. I found a profound appreciation for this work, which ‘planted the seed’ in my heart and spirit.
Everything changed when my niece and I attended a yoga retreat abroad. This offered me the uninterrupted chance to practice mindfulness—to realign, find an anchor in my breath, and become aware of my physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. I was struck with a new sense of purpose; I wanted to continue my journey and offer it up to others, too. It was time for a shift. I resigned from my 24-year career as a speech therapist and began teaching again with Shanthi Project in 2021.
Finding My Rhythm
Before my first few classes, I set aside time to tap into my mindful breath. I couldn’t offer mindfulness to others without first taking a minute to pause, breathe deeply, and recall the connection I felt to this practice. This intentionality helped me teach mindfulness to others.
From kindergarten to fourth grade, session after session, I found that my students connected to this “mindful minute,” too, and we began every class this way. My directions began, “Okay, my friends, let’s take a mindful minute. Quiet feet, quiet seat—and the rest will follow. You may close your eyes, or just soften your gaze.”
Many students welcomed this moment to pause, to just be still. They would rest their heads on their desks and soften their busy bodies. After a full minute, I completed the practice by ringing a chime, and each student put their hand over their heart when they no longer heard the sound.
Our sessions also included practices that centered around movement, breath, listening and focus. (Movement, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a widespread favorite among the kids.) I used mindful breath and movement as a way to gain back classroom attention, too. Something as simple as a quick “sunshine breath” could quiet down particularly chatty classes, reconnecting them to our lesson. Not only did this serve as a positive method of redirecting my class, but it entrenched the practices of physical and emotional regulation that mindfulness is all about. As I noticed progress amidst the laughing and fun, I was delighted to see my students gaining positive lifelong skills to help to ground themselves in the moment.
Looking Inward and Diving Deeper
One of my favorite lessons to teach was about kindness. This session encouraged the class to offer kindness first to themselves, then to others, saying:
“May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful.
May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be peaceful.”
I suggested that the students could envision their quiet words being lifted up and sent out to someone, like bubbles or clouds.
After this practice, each class had the space to express how it made them feel. Many students said it made them feel calm, and others noted it felt nice to speak kind words out loud to someone else. In one session, a classroom teacher shared that she had offered her words to someone who had been challenging her, and she noted to her students that sending kindness out to this person helped her regulate complicated feelings.
Another particularly powerful lesson focused on gratitude. After we discussed what it means to be grateful, we shared what each of us feels grateful for. Their responses blew past my expectations. Rather than expressing gratitude for items—like games or clothing—my students talked about their homes, families, friends, and teachers. They told me how thankful they felt for good food, their faiths, and what they were learning with Shanthi Project.
My Turn to be Grateful
As my first sixteen weeks of teaching mindfulness came to a close, I received several handwritten cards and pictures with offerings of thanks. A classroom teacher expressed to his students how lucky they were to learn mindfulness skills, wishing he could’ve had a similar experience at their age. The principal even relayed to me that a parent noticed her son had been slowing down his speech and speaking more clearly, a change he attributed to our program’s breathwork.
Mindfulness education is something deeply important to me, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to offer it to others. It’s guided me to become more aware of my physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions and to realign when I need to. I’ve learned so much from teaching mindfulness, but most importantly, I’ve cultivated the lifelong hope that others can find clarity and focus in their mindfulness practice, too.
Annie Serfass, a mindfulness teacher with Shanthi Project and new contributor to our blog, recently recorded two yoga videos, guiding children aged 4-10 through mindful movement and breathwork. Watch them below!