(RNS) – Next week, 45 teachers from Atalaya Elementary School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, will participate in a two-hour professional development session on Zoom where they sit in silence and learn to regulate their emotions and pay attention.
In other words, they will learn the techniques of mindfulness meditation – the secular version of Buddhist practice that has skyrocketed in popularity to become America’s go-to stress antidote.
Nor will it be teachers’ first exposure to the practice. Atalaya teachers have attended a one-day in-person training each year at the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute in Santa Fe, and many, if not most, teachers at this elementary school have continued to incorporate mindfulness into their teachings. classes.
Last year, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are accessing mindful training online and taking advantage of multiple opportunities to meditate in the comfort of their own homes.
“Going from the line in person to the hybrid and then back online has been very stressful,” said Kate Diaz, principal of Atalaya Elementary School, describing the final year of teaching in a pandemic. “It keeps people sane in these crazy times.”
Mindfulness meditation for public school teachers and their students has become a fashionable trend in American education. The National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates 3.1 million American children, ages 4 to 17, learned mindfulness meditation in school in 2017, the latest year for which data is available. Five million yoga practitioners.
Several national programs, such as MindUP for life (founded by actress Goldie Hawn), Mindfulness schools, Calmer choice and CARE for teachers, have developed programs for educators and for classroom use.
But a lot of little outfits, like the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute, have revamped their offerings for a larger online world. The institute, an offshoot of the Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Sante Fe, offers Zoom-based mindfulness education to teachers in public schools statewide. Recently, it launched online lunchtime guided meditations for public school teachers, social service providers, lawyers and other caregivers.
Online offerings have helped Rio Grande broaden and expand its reach just as there is a growing demand for personal care.
“Since the pandemic, I have seen a lot more interest in stress management and understanding stress, from the people we interact with in our network,” said John Braman, co-director of the institute. . “It feels like the pandemic has brought about a collective and personal reassessment and that includes a visit to the spiritual support system that people acquire or study or are curious about.”
Across the country, opposition to mindfulness, as well as yoga, in public schools appears to be waning. Alabama lawmakers are considering a bill that would lift a quarter-century ban on yoga and meditation in public schools. In other southern areas, such as neighboring Georgia, Atlanta public schools have in partnership with The Namaste Project to bring yoga and meditation to students every week.
Many Christians, especially evangelicals, fear that public schools’ use of mindfulness practices derived from Buddhism (or, in the case of yoga, Hinduism) will remain inherently religious and may lead children to drop out. their Christian faith. They say it is hypocritical for public schools to offer such practices while maintaining a ban on school prayer and Bible readings.
But in many places, advocates of meditation have reframed the practices as secular to avoid legal challenges. At the Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute, many Buddhist symbols have been abandoned. There is no bow, no candles, no meeting of hands in prayer position, no zafu (meditation cushions) required.
“Being in a public school, we have to be very careful. We have to keep it secular, ”said Gina Rasinski, director of fine arts for Albuquerque Public Schools. Raskinski provided his 140 elementary art and music teachers with mindful professional development in Rio Grande.
She said she encountered no opposition.
In a recent guided lunchtime meditation for caregivers in Rio Grande, teacher Valerie Forstman introduced mindfulness as a “self-care survival kit.” She then cited the Mayo Clinic, which recommends meditation as a way to “eliminate the information overload that builds up and contributes to stress.”
Before starting meditation, she explained the emotional benefits of meditation for improving self-awareness, focusing on the present, reducing negative emotions, and stimulating creativity. She told the participants to take what was helpful and drop the rest.
“Find a comfortable position,” she then began. “Welcome yourself to a position of balance. Take deep breaths. Exhale all tension. Let go of the static of the day. Have confidence in this collected silence.
Praising the scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness has become commonplace among secular versions of meditation. It dates back to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who in 1979 founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and is credited with removing mindfulness from his Buddhist roots and giving it a shine. scientist.
More recently, some studies show that the science of meditation is not always so strong. A meta-analysis of studies suggests that mindfulness-based practices may not be more effective than other therapies (such as aerobic exercise or even napping) and, in some cases, could cause harm.
Candy Gunther Brown, professor of religious studies at Indiana University, said mindfulness programs could benefit from an informed consent model that gives participants the ability to assess competing scientific claims, as well. than asking questions about what has been changed to make a secular rather than a religious program.
As she points out in her delivered, “Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Restoring Religion?”
Rio Grande teachers are convinced that their method works.
“We don’t have a conversion program,” said Henry Shukman, co-director of the institute. “What we do is a practice. We have a great practice which is very good for stress management and we are happy to offer it where it is urgently needed.
Teachers and administrators at Atalaya Elementary School say it has been a balm. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, a teacher began a 15-minute guided meditation for her colleagues on Zoom before the start of the school day.
“It’s great to see people move on with that,” said Diaz, the director, who is a practicing Christian. “80% of the staff have learned to see and appreciate it, and 100% see how good it is for the kids. The idea of sitting down and being peaceful and present and watching your breathing is really powerful.