Sept. 24, 2015 -- In the cavernous gymnasium at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, dozens of third, fourth, and fifth-graders sit on yoga mats -- legs crossed, eyes closed, palms loosely open and facing upward on their knees.
At the front of the room, a young man guides them through a series of breathing exercises, yoga poses, and meditation. The program’s goal: to show students how to focus better, control anger, and ease stress.
Called the “Holistic Me After-School Program,” it was developed by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their colleague Andres Gonzalez. Their Holistic Life Foundation has been bringing mindfulness education to the schoolchildren of Baltimore -- including this school with a large low-income population, and more far-flung communities -- for more than a dozen years.
“It gives them tools to peacefully resolve conflict and manage their stress and their anger,” says Atman Smith. “You can see it in their eyes.”
No longer viewed as just a West Coast fad, mindfulness training is catching on in schools and workplaces across the country.
Dozens of mindfulness programs now serve schools in various states, with the majority on the East and West Coasts.
One of the largest programs, Mindful Schools, says it has trained nearly 10,000 adults from organizations in all 50 U.S. states and 100+ countries, impacting over 300,000 children and adolescents.
“The rate of training has been growing quickly,” says Mindful Schools’ Director of Research Camille Whitney. She says the organization trained nearly 1,100 people just in July 2015.
“Mindfulness is growing ... because people are seeing the benefits of this in kids,” says Steven Hickman, PhD, founder and director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California, San Diego. “With all the stress they’re under and the distractions they face, it’s helping them calm down and pay attention.”
People of All Ages Can Benefit
Google, Target, General Mills, and Aetna are among companies that have made a big investment in these programs. They’re among companies adopting Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an 8-week program teaching mindfulness and gentle yoga originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The center says that since its inception, more than 22,000 have completed the 8-week program.
And in the world of sports, NFL Super Bowl-winning coach Pete Carroll has used mindfulness training with his team for several years.
What exactly is mindfulness? Programs differ, but in essence it’s a simple form of meditation that involves focusing your attention on your breath as it moves in and out. It also teaches you to focus on the emotions, thoughts, and sensations you're experiencing in the present moment.
“I started to see a difference in the students’ behaviors,” says Coleman Elementary principal Carlillian Thompson. “Instead of fighting or lashing out, they started using words to solve their problems. Those students who began in the program, who are now middle-school students, are very successful, and they come back and participate in the program also.”
Research shows that the programs have significant benefits for children.
One study found that a group of 194 first- through third-grade children who participated in a 12-week program of breath awareness and yoga improved their attention and social skills and decreased their test anxiety. Another found that three adolescents with conduct disorder (a range of antisocial behaviors) who were trained in mindfulness had a drop in their aggressive behavior. And after a 5-week mindfulness program in a California elementary school, teachers said they noticed improved classroom behavior -- paying attention, self-control, participation in activities, and caring and respect for others -- that lasted for at least 7 weeks after the program.
Workplace adopters are reporting perks, too. Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, recently told the New York Times that the company’s meditation and yoga classes have led to reports of lower stress levels and an average increase of 62 minutes of productivity per employee per week. The company estimates that is worth $3,000 per employee annually. One study published last year found that a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program used by the Dow Chemical Company led to drops in stress for participants, as well as more resiliency and engagement in work.
Some companies are pursuing mindfulness solely with an eye toward the bottom line, or because they think it’s a fad -- “Google’s doing it, so we should too.” “But others are doing it because they want to have happy, satisfied, well employees,” Hickman says. “That’s where it’s going to be sustainable.”
There are other areas, though, where mindfulness is still almost unheard of. “There are still the challenges that public schools face, in people perceiving mindfulness or yoga as being some sort of religious activity, even though it isn’t that by any stretch. It’s simply paying attention,” Hickman says.
Kevin Pokorny, a business consultant and coach in Des Moines, Iowa, recently co-hosted two Mindfulness Summit Dialogues for people in his community. Attendees, about 16 at each session, included people from local businesses and nonprofits, therapists, and people involved in their own mindfulness work.
“This is something pretty new for people here; I think we are really breaking ground in this area,” Pokorny says.
He says he thinks that the legal insurance company ARAG is the only area organization that has a mindfulness program -- but he’s hoping that will change soon. “I have integrated mindfulness practices in some of the consulting work with my clients here in Iowa, and they've been very receptive.”
Another plus for mindfulness: It can be done virtually anywhere with no equipment at all.
“You don’t need props or supplies, just a person with a desire to practice,” Ali Smith says. “Once you equip a child with these tools, no matter how chaotic their external environment is, they can find a place inside them that’s quiet and calm and peaceful.”