Take a deep breath. Seriously, right now. This story will be still be here.
How does is feel when your torso expands? How does your shirt feel against your ribs? How does the breath feel on your upper lip as it goes in and out your nose? How does it sound? What do you notice?
This breathing exercise is one of many ways to practice mindfulness, an exercise of focused, active awareness. And the next generation of La Jollans — the Kindergarteners to fifth-graders attending La Jolla Elementary School — are learning this early and getting a mindful foundation, thanks a workshop they attended, March 19-20.
Mindfulness instructor of 18 years (and parent to two La Jolla Elementary students) Eric Dinenberg, led the sessions, devoting 30 minutes to each grade.
“Mindfulness just means giving your attention to the present moment without judgment,” he said. “Whatever it is, is OK. It’s noticing the breath and observing what you find. We are not striving for a perfect breath. Mindfulness is simply noticing and letting go of everything that takes you away from your breath. That thought about the past or future, or whatever else is going on. It’s just about noticing the present.”
An American Psychological Association article on mindfulness cites the benefits as: reduced rumination, stress reduction, boosts to working memory, improved focus, less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility, relationship satisfaction and more. Mindfulness is not associated with any religious or spiritual practice. Having taught mindfulness to doctors and patients as a healing tool, Dinenberg said when patients responded positively, their first comment was usually, “I wish I had this when I was younger,” then, “Why don’t we teach this to our kids?”
At La Jolla Elementary School, Dinenberg started with the Raisin Exercise.
He explained: “You distribute one raisin to every participant and they explore the raisin using all their senses, one sense at a time. (He continues as he did with the children): Pretend you are an explorer and your job is to report back about what a raisin is. What would you say to someone who has never heard of a raisin? Use your senses. Look at it, observe colors, wrinkles, and how it reacts to light. Then hold it up to your ear and move it around between your fingers to see if it makes a sound, and listen to it. Then hold it under your nose and smell it, both up close and far away. Finally, taste it. You are being very purposeful about this experience with each sense.”
From there, the students are led through a two-minute breathing exercise. “We ask how mindful breathing could be helpful? They came up with great answers! One student said when they fight with their siblings, they can take an exploratory breath. Another said it would help calm themselves down before a test. Another student, who plays soccer, said they could use it for before-game nerves, regulating post-victory excitement and recovering from post-loss disappointment.”
The takeaway for these children, he said, is that a person’s breath is always available to them, and that there are no tools or other resources needed to practice mindfulness.
Eric’s wife, Trish Dinenberg, pointed out that this mindfulness practice is a self-regulating tool and a first introduction to stress-reducing resources for children. “People think of kids as having a care-free life, and perhaps compared to adults, they do, but they have different stresses than adults,” she said. “From a parent’s point of view, I feel like today’s kids’ lives are planned more, they have to manage social media.”
Regardless of age, Eric Dinenberg said mindfulness is a specific practice that can be developed through repetition, just like any other skill. There are formal practices, during which a specific amount of time is dedicated to mindfulness each day; and informal practices, which are conducted as opportunities arise or as needed.
In describing a formal practice, he said: “You make an appointment with yourself to focus on mindfulness. I tell some people to practice mindfulness by way of a breathing exercise while their morning coffee brews. When they’re done, their coffee is ready. Adding mindfulness to something you’re already doing helps encourage the daily practice.”
Informal practice, he said, can be done on the fly. “I coach doctors on this, and because they wash their hands a lot, I encourage them to practice when they wash their hands (which anyone could also do). As you wash your hands, notice when your mind goes to the future and/or the past. Come to the present. While washing your hands, notice your feet on the ground, the temperature of the water and sensation of the soap. It could only be five seconds, but it’s a practice, and every little bit helps.”