Inside: Let’s talk about the basics of mindfulness for you and your children! Learn how to use this simple, ancient tool for better physical and mental health, improved cognitive functioning, sensory processing, and general well-being. Includes printables, games, and my original exercises.
Sounds good, but I’m too busy.
I love the idea of it, but not today.
I know you’ve heard that mindfulness can improve your life, yet the to-do list pulls you away again – it’s such an irresistible temptation.
Mindfulness is a big word that simply means consciously placing your attention on the reality of the here and now. We all know by now that it has the magical power to make us calmer and happier.
However, there is something else about mindfulness that you might now know yet, and maybe it will convince you to try it right away!
Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered that practicing mindfulness changes our brain’s physical structure in the areas responsible for processing most cognitive functions and sensory information.
In other words, practicing mindfulness translates into being better at thinking, reasoning, planning, problem-solving, decision-making, memory, attention, and controlling emotions.
Because we literally build the structures that support those mental abilities.
Also, according to a study published in Brain and Cognition, it only takes eight weeks to begin to see results. And the longer you practice, the greater the results. That cortical thickening that scientists rave about was more significant among people who sustained their practice over time.
If you haven’t heard, cortical thickening measures the width of the grey matter of the human cortex. The grey matter serves to process information in the brain. Human intellectual ability is related to this brain structure, including the thickness of the cerebral cortex.
Despite the proliferation of research on mindfulness, it’s often misunderstood as a hobby for those who have the privilege of clocking out of the day-to-day hustle.
That’s absolutely not true!
We all need mindfulness in our lives.
What’s more, we don’t want to miss a chance to help our kids start their mindfulness skills early – skills that will make them more efficient thinkers and protect them from stress. So, let me suggest some specific ways to get started practicing mindfulness with your kids.
1. Octopus Brain
Someone wise once said,
“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the minds of others.”
You instinctively know it’s true, but I bet you regularly give your kids a lecture on what they should be doing and then feel mildly surprised when it doesn’t work.
Here’s a secret: let your kids experience the benefit of mindfulness. I know that this Octopus Brain exercise is lengthy, but it’s very persuasive. I came up with this 3-part activity to demonstrate to my kids the difference between overactive and calm brains.
Step 1: Mind Pop
Invite your kids to lie down, take a few deep breaths, and name all the different thoughts or fragments of ideas that pop into their minds.
Christmas is so far away
My foot itches
Did I feed my fish?
Am I doing this right?
I definitely forgot to feed the fish
Pop! Pop! And Pop! Thoughts pop up all over the place on a wide range of topics. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that we think 60,000-80,000 thoughts a day. I sometimes think 60,000 thoughts a minute … Or so it seems.
Biologists have discovered that octopuses have nine brains. But doesn’t it sometimes feel like you have enough ideas going on inside your head for nine brains too?!
Step 2: White Bear
Now, invite your kids not to think about a white bear. They can think about anything they please, but they can’t think of a white bear.
According to Ironic Process Theory, suppressing “the white bear” thoughts is absolutely impossible. You can read more about it in a fascinating little book called, The White Bear and Other Unwanted Thoughts by Daniel Wagner.
For now, just take my word for it; the more you try, the more you can’t stop thinking about the darn bear! The lesson here is that we don’t have as much control over our thinking habits as we think we do … that is until we train our minds. Telling ourselves – Stop stressing! Stop worrying! Stop thinking about the test! doesn’t work… but there is something that does work.
Step 3: Maximum Expansion Breathing
It’s time to take five mind-focusing breaths. You better try this first on your own so that you can understand the accompanying physical sensations.
It goes like this:
Sit cross-legged on the floor, and close your eyes. Start slowly and steadily inhaling from the bottom of your spine up and up into the brain. When you can’t inhale anymore, stop and hold your breath. Aim to hold your breath for a minute before slowly exhaling, but you will probably need to start with a shorter interval.
The first few times you do it, your mind is going to panic. Oh my god, I’m going to pass out! Remind yourself that Navy Seals hold their breath for 2-3 minutes. You will be fine.
Yes, you will feel strong internal sensations that will force you to both tune in and tune out the world around you. Your heart will beat faster, your face might get hot, and you will feel your veins humming.
The most common misconception about holding your breath is that you’re running out of air — you’re not. What you’re feeling is carbon dioxide (CO₂) building up in your blood from not exhaling.
We take more than 19,000 breaths a day automatically and without thinking.
Here are just five breaths we take for maximum expansion breathing, and once you are done, just sit and observe the sensations in your body.
If you are like most people, you will notice an immense feeling of calm, peace, and well-being unexpectedly descending on you. Like something incredibly good just happened. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself smiling for no reason.
Soak it all up!
You created it in your body just by giving yourself a few mindful breaths!
Note: I find that in the beginning, it helps to use one hand to pinch your nose. After you’ve done it a couple of times, you can just tilt your head a bit down to seal the back of your throat. It also helps raise the tip of your tongue and press it against the palate.
Another trick I learned is to use your other hand (the one that is not pinching your nose) to draw circles on the top of your head to remind you where you want your breath to go.
To sum up The Octopus Brain Exercise:
The purpose of this is somewhat lengthy (but fun!) Octopus Brain exercise is to realize that our minds are mostly filled with random thoughts that often have little substance (Step1), and when we try to suppress thoughts (Step 2), it backfires. However, we can use the most basic mindfulness skills (like breathing in Step 3) to press “reset” and direct our minds into calm water where we can observe with new eyes the rich world inside and all around us.
2. Big Ideas
Scientists have discovered that how we breathe has a direct and consequential impact on how we feel. Do you see the significance of this nuance?
We tend to think that how we feel is reflected in our breath, but we can turn that cause to effect back on itself. We can breathe the way we want to feel, and the feelings will come. You don’t have to wait until you are calm to achieve a sense of calm. Next time you are out of calm, start breathing slowly and mindfully, and the body will automatically follow. Isn’t this trick life-changing!?
Mindfulness is not just for people who have nothing better to do. In fact, modern mindfulness-based programs are designed to help busy people like you incorporate mindfulness practice into daily life.
After I had a couple of kids, I enrolled in kids’ yoga instructor training.
I didn’t want to become a teacher. I just wanted to discover a few tricks, tips, and inspiration to teach my kids yoga and meditation. And indeed, I learned a lot about incorporating playfulness into the practice to make it fun and relevant, and my kids still meditate and practice yoga regularly.
But you don’t have to enroll in yoga teacher training to help your kids start their mindfulness journey. YouTube offers plenty of amazing videos. I like The Cosmic Kids Yoga channel and Bari Coral: Kids Yoga, Music, and Mindfulness.
If you are a visual learner, I highly recommend taking Jon Kabat-Zinn Mindfulness & Meditation class. This guy is a genius, and I love his relaxed, nurtured manner so much that I convinced my two older kids to take his class as well.
If you prefer books, there are some wonderful choices that will get you started.
- A Calm Brain, Dr. Gayatri Devi
- The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris
- The Awakened Brain, Lisa Miller
- The Open-Focus Brain, Dr. Les Fehmi
- Mindfulness for Teens in 10 minutes a Day, Jennie Marie Battistin
And I bet if you look, you will find workshops, classes, and camps near you.
3. Awakening the Heart to Nature
Calm, more alive, and joyful…
You have probably felt it while strolling through the forest, sitting on a mountain peak or in a meadow on a sunny day, or maybe while standing on an ocean shore.
The profound sense of connection with all of life…
Clarity, peace, unity…
And a powerful pull to something big, beautiful, and uplifting.
Now for a little science to help explain…
Schumann Resonance refers to the extremely low-frequency electromagnetic field that surrounds all living things between the Earth’s crust to about one mile up. This natural frequency pulsation of 7.83 Hertz is considered to be mother nature’s natural heartbeat and has existed from the dawn of life on earth.
What’s more astonishing, though, is that when researchers looked deeper into it, they realized that it’s the same wavelength of our brains when in meditation, prayer, or other mindfulness activities like holding hands with loved ones.
In other words, when we practice mindfulness, we literally resonate at the same frequency as all of nature on Earth, i.e., leaves, trees, and animals. Do you see why when we immerse ourselves in nature, we feel that powerful oneness with all of life?!
If you want to be a family that lives in alignment with that resonance, learn to connect with the natural world. According to a Seattle Children’s Research Institute study, 49% of preschoolers don’t get any parent-supervised time to play outside.
“If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It’s a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it’s even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it’s a lot more fun.” – Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
You don’t have to be an “outdoorsy person” or own a pair of hiking boots or trekking poles to take your kids into nature. Just walk. Anywhere things grow, and you’ll feel it.
4. Woodpecker Wisdom
We have a cute woodpecker living near our house. I don’t know why it chose this place for its home, next to a noisy intersection and kiddy splash park, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to observe a woodpecker in action, and I’m truly fascinated by the mechanics.
A woodpecker’s head hits the tree with tremendous force and speed. In fact, it’s a blur. Over and over again relentlessly. How in the world does the poor bird avoid a migraine? Or even a concussion?
Well, it turns out that woodpeckers avoid brain injury by distributing the impact through the whole body. I saw a lesson in this strategy right away, and I came to call it Woodpecker Wisdom.
Woodpecker Wisdom Exercise
When something unpleasant happens, no matter how big or small, we have a tendency to contract and hold it in some part of our body. Think of the last time you were standing in the checkout line at the grocery store when the person in front of you suddenly had a problem that required waiting for a manager.
Did you feel your negative emotions as the tightening in your chest? Or as the pressure around your head? Or an unpleasant sensation in the gut?
The next time you feel that contraction in response to something unpleasant (say, kids, resisting going to bed when you are exhausted), think of woodpeckers and let the sensation – whatever you feel – flow through your whole body like a wave. No judgment. Just be with it. It will flow through you, spend itself, and flow out of you. The only way to prevent emotions from being stuck inside is to let them go through you.
If your kids ask you why you went all limp, explain, “I’m trying to prevent a brain injury,” and then teach them how to do it by starting with physical sensations. Kids love the Woodpecker exercise.
Here is how to teach it:
Tell them to lie down and close their eyes. Now, as gently as you can, touch them somewhere on their body – nose, knee, tummy, shoulder, etc. They have to sense where the sensation of touching comes from and then move it through their body. If you touched the knee, they can say, “knee,” and you tell them to move the sensation into their head and then out of the top of their heads. If you touched the nose, you can tell them to move the sensation down to the feet and shoot it out of their toes like arrows.
The point of this method is to teach kids to shut down the analytical mind by entering the sensing/feeling mode.
When we focus on the body and sensations related to it, we are actually training our proprioception skills (awareness of our bodies in space). And brain scans reveal that practicing these skills allows parts of the brain to better communicate with other parts, which leads to order and synchronization.
5. Private Investigator Happy Minute
Tired of all the crazy names I came up with yet? Ha ha!
I learned about a “happy minute” in one of Robert Holden’s books. He is a British psychologist and the Director of the Happiness Project, the first of its kind Happiness training program in Birmingham, England.
The idea is simple: set your timer, and when it goes off, do something that makes you happy for 60 seconds.
When I first started doing this exercise, I noticed a lot of internal resistance. I would feel guilty (I don’t have time for this!), silly (I’m too busy for this silliness!), panicky (I really should do something productive right now), and even angry (I’m wasting my time!!!).
Ding! 60 seconds over.
The good news is that you can get better at it. It’s a great introduction to the art of self-awareness. Be like a curious investigator, and ask yourself, What do I need right now? What do I like? What makes me happy?
You might want to say something like, I need a vacation, or I want a bigger home. But those are all big things in the future that move you out of here and now. Besides, research shows that those things only can make us happier temporarily, and then we go back to our preset level of happiness. But if we practice being happy in the here and now, we can actually raise our preset level of happiness to a higher set point. (LINK: happiness now)
So, what can you do in 60 seconds that can make you happy without any guilt?
I’ve made some useful discoveries in my investigation:
- Step outside and look at the sky, squirrels, and trees
- Sip a glass of cool water very slowly
- Close your eyes and take deep breaths
- Dance (we have a list of happy songs here)
- Eat a mindful snack, feeling grateful that you don’t have to worry about where your next meal comes from
- Move, stretch, and notice body sensations (check out my Happy Mommy Handbook)
- Share a 3-breath hug
- Focus on a specific thing you’re grateful for, like the ability to see something that’s in front of you at this moment
- Stand in front of a mirror and smile
- Tell yourself something positive, I’m awesome! My existence is a miracle!
- Sing a song
- Let something go, i.e., the tension in your neck, an old grudge, an idea that doesn’t serve you anymore.
And here is another one I learned from Brainstorm by Daniel Siegal. When we put one hand on our heart and the other on our abdomen while we breathe deeply, we feel a profound sense of relaxation. Try it!
Do your kids know what makes them happy? Hint: It can’t be anything related to screens. No video games, shows, or youtube videos. You might need to help them brainstorm some ideas or let them piggyback off your favorite things.
It all starts with the decision to give mindfulness a try – it’s an experiment! You will always be busy, but when you begin to use mindfulness skills in your daily life, you can slow down time. And instead of rushing through your life, always trying to get somewhere else, you can learn to stop long enough to smell the roses while changing the physical structure of your brain for the better.