Returning to restfulness
A mindfulness practice expands the inner container we call the soul, whereas a prayer practice is an expression emanating from that container. The enterprises are linked, but still separate pedagogically.
I’ve noticed in my house something unusual about my son’s experience in Jewish preschool recently. More and more, upon getting home from school, my 4-year-old son Shay tells my wife Shoshana and I how much he loved that day’s yoga session. Over the years, my kids have been exposed to this kind of practice throughout their preschool experiences, and seeing its impact on my son, how he seems more centered and more thoughtful, has made me wish this experience were given to kids of all ages throughout the Jewish world and in society at large.
There are so many areas of development in preschool, from letters and numbers to social skills to moral growth. But with all that noise (holy noise!), I want to make the case for just how important it is to learn how to breathe, calm oneself, sit in silence, expand one’s consciousness and increase one’s attention span. We know all about how to get our kids ahead in math and science, but what are we doing to help them learn to boost their sense of self-awareness, increase their oxygen circulation and reduce their stress?
Mindfulness education is necessary for numerous reasons. We all know of the importance of physical health. Yoga and meditation are helpful not just for the mind, but for our kids’ growing bodies.
Also, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mental health studies from 2016 to 2019 show that 9.8% of children have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), 9.4% suffer from anxiety, 8.9% have behavior problems and 4.4% suffer from depression. In a world in which technology has made mental health one of the greatest crises of our time, the need to proactively improve our kids’ mental strength and spiritual resiliency cannot be ignored.
“Emerging research studies also suggest that yoga can help children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by improving the core symptoms of ADHD, including inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity.” Dr. Marlynn Wei wrote in Harvard Health Publishing. “It can also boost school performance in children with ADHD.”
The New York Times reported:
At this age, mindfulness practice can also help children in school. A recent study found that fourth and fifth graders who took a four-month meditation program demonstrated improvements in cognitive control, working memory and math test scores. Other studies have shown that mindfulness can be especially helpful to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and also reduce children’s aggression, anxiety and stress.
Further, mindfulness is indeed crucial for moral development. A quieter and more controlled mind has great potential for expanding the capacity for empathy. It improves character traits, middot such as menuchat nefesh (equanimity), hitlamdut (learning from everything) and anivut (managing the ego).
And beyond a moral and ethical aid, mindfulness can be an explicitly spiritual experience. Yes, our schools often do a great job of teaching Jewish holidays, the Hebrew language and even Jewish rituals. But they are often not sufficiently teaching children how to search for and feel God’s presence. The starting place of the religious journey should be the realization of the soul, as the search for God is not primarily intellectual, but done through the channel of the soul. By training their minds today, our kids will be equipped to have better and more meaningful Jewish prayer as they get older. But a prayer curriculum, as important as it can be, cannot replace a mindfulness one. A mindfulness practice expands the inner container we call the soul, whereas a prayer practice is an expression emanating from that container. The enterprises are linked, but still separate pedagogically.
Maybe most importantly, spiritual practices honor our children’s innate dignity. Through mindfulness, they learn that they’re valuable not only for their academic achievements or soccer goals scored, but just for being themselves. In school, we’re very good at teaching kids about doing, but we don’t lastingly teach students about being. We give them a long to-do list but not a space to fulfill a to-be list.
In our chaotic world that will only make our kids more anxious as they grow up, it is, in my view, indispensable that we give them a strong foundation not only in pure academic skills, but in healthy breathing and mindfulness. If our children do not go on to live mentally healthy lives, everything else they learn in school will be of diminished benefit.
Instead of letting them be overwhelmed by the world, we should be teaching them how to answer God’s great question in Genesis, “Where are you?” As humans, we need to be training ourselves to be able to answer not like Adam, who responds that he was hiding from God because he was afraid, but like Abraham, who says “Here I am.”
I believe the way we accomplish this should be to have yoga — or other forms of mind-body meditational experiences — offered to 3-year-olds, fourth-graders, summer campers, high-school seniors and everyone in between. Mindfulness education should be available not only in preschools, but also in day schools, Hebrew schools, camps and synagogues.
It is only with practice can we learn to be like the Psalmist, who says, “Return, my soul, to restfulness!”
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of 23 books on Jewish ethics.