Follow the Breath (Teaching Mindfulness to Youth Pt. 4)

February 7, 2010

Part Four in a series of 5 posts on teaching mindfulness to youth. These techniques are geared especially for youth ages 11-15 years.

The next step in teaching mindful awareness techniques to youth is perhaps the simplest, but most challenging for many young people. Before we discover why, let’s recap the previous three steps:

1. Create a “mindful experience” using the environment in which you teach. This gives youth a reference point for what mindfulness is.

2. Guide students to relax and sequentially listen to the sounds outside of the room, inside of the room and finally the breath. Ask students to label the sounds they hear. (ie….”bird,” “talking”)

3. Bringing the awareness closer to home, so to speak, have students pay attention the sensations within their bodies. Start with the skin and slowly move to the inner body. Again, label the sensations. (ie…”tickle,” “growl.”)

Now to step four, following the breath, which requires a more refined level of attention. First, establish a steady, comfortable seated or laying down posture. Remember, in these beginning stages, allowing students to be physically comfortable will allow them to work more readily with their attention. If laying down, create a symmetrical position with the body. If sitting, uplift the spine, without too much fuss. Sitting against a wall may help. Once the basic understanding of mindfulness is in place, a more aligned physical posture  can be assumed.

Begin to breathe in and out through the nose, if possible. Otherwise, breathe through the mouth. Follow each inhalation into the body. Be curious about where the breath travels in the body. Notice the end of the inhalation. Follow the exhalation out of the body. Notice the end of the exhalation. This is one cycle of breath.

Begin to count each cycle of breath. One inhale and one exhale equals one breath. It helps to count at the end of each breath cycle. Continue counting for the entire exercise. Let students know that if they realize they have lost count, no problem, simply start over again at one. This is not a contest, it is am experiment to see how long your mind can focus on the breath.

Seems simple, right? Well, if you have never tried, go ahead and give it a go. While the other parts of learning mindfulness techniques involve random factors such as unexpected sounds and sensations, following the breath is monotonous and fairly uneventful, at first. For adolescents, staying with the breath can be very challenging.

One tip to get started, borrowed from one of my dear teachers Sue Elkind, is to ask students to count their breath down from 10. This gives a clear beginning, middle and end to the process. Once this way is practiced several times, the counting from one upward may be more accessible.

Practice the counting for 3-5 minutes in the beginning. When time is up, ask students to notice the number they are on and bring them back to the room gradually. Have them notice the support of the floor beneath them and the air around them. Open the eyes if they were closed and look around.

Asking students to state their number of counted breathes out loud can give skewed results as students tend to want to be within the same realm as their peers. Have students write their name and number on a small post-it note and turn it in to you. This will give you some indication of your students process in this technique.

When moving into more refined mindfulness techniques such as this one, two factors are critical. Number one, only teach what you know. Take on this practice yourself, preferably with an experienced teacher. Number two, remember that this is a practice of training the mind’s attention. Most people lose focus easily in the beginning. What matters most is that one notices when the attention has strayed and starts back at one. Starting back at one is a good thing! It means you are becoming aware of your mind.


One Response to “Follow the Breath (Teaching Mindfulness to Youth Pt. 4)”

  1. I like to play the breathing game 10 Breaths with teens and adults. Distractions occur often and its back to one we go, but as you pointed out its the awareness that is important, not getting to 10

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