The Importance of Mindfulness as an Educator

I teach yoga and meditation to students in schools and am a part of a non-profit that is making yoga and meditation more accessible to students, especially those in underserved schools. Through this experience, I began to recognize the need for yoga and meditation not just for students, but for their staff and teachers as well. No one would argue that educators have it easy. They are placed under extreme pressures and high standards, are under-supported, and are poorly compensated in return. Yet, the health and well-being of teachers are rarely attended to. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and global spiritual leader, recognized this matter and thus has made it one of his missions to support educators in their work. Wake Up Schools (WUS) is an initiative started by Thich Nhat Hanh in 2008 to support educators by sharing mindfulness practices. WUS trains teachers to practice and embody mindfulness and offers resources to help teachers establish their own mindfulness practice and find ways to share their practice within their school communities. 

I decided to attend a teachers’ retreat hosted by Wake Up Schools in the spring of 2017 to reinvigorate my own practice and to learn how to share this practice with other teachers. My experience during this week was invaluable, and what I observed further strengthened my belief in the importance of mindfulness for educators. 

Why Practice Mindfulness?

As an educator, having a mindfulness practice allows one the ability to self-care. The teachers I met who had a regular practice didn’t deny the difficulty or frustrations of their work, but were not beaten down by it. Mindfulness was one of the many tools they had for  self-care. Taking time to nurture one’s soul and well-being has the added benefit of fortifying the resolve that’s needed if this kind of hard work is to be sustained. It’s not unnatural to expect educators to become cynical about the education system, but cynicism leads us dangerously close to apathy. While the teachers I met were determined to fix the problems they recognized in their schools and were realistic about the challenges they faced in attempting to do so, they were anything but cynical. Perhaps there was a healthy dose of skepticism, but it was the love and optimism they nurtured through their practice that continued to push them forward. 

I came into the experience expecting to fill my notebook with practical lessons and tips on how to share this practice with fellow teachers, but I left with my notebook empty, minus a few scribbled references. My notebook remained virtually empty because I was quickly reminded that the only way to share mindfulness is to practice mindfulness. The most important step is to start. If you’re an educator, I hope that you’ll start your own practice so that you can continue to inspire your students. If you’re not an educator, I still hope that you’ll still take that first step to start. 

Some tips for starting your practice:

-  Set an intention, or sankalpa, for how long and how often you will practice 

- Starting small, with just 5-10 minutes a day means no excuses 

- Write it explicitly into your schedule 

- Schedule it at the same time so it becomes habitual 

- If possible, also practice in the same place every time so you begin to associate that space with your practice, which will help you get into the right mindset each time

The problems embedded in our current education system—the structures that often leave both students and teachers neglected—are complicated issues that cannot be solved in a day. So as educators, we must establish the strength that is required such a battle and nurture the love that shields us from becoming embittered by the setbacks or slow progress. And we must practice so that we can guide our students on their own journey. 

There's a Yoga Practice for That

The most valuable lesson I've learned in my Yoga Therapy Rx training is that Yoga is for everyone. Whatever problem you think is keeping you from being able to do Yoga is the exact reason you should be practicing. If you're feeling fatigued, there's a Yoga practice for that. If you have back pain, there's a Yoga practice for that. If you injured your shoulder, there's a Yoga practice for that. If you're dealing with an autoimmune disease, there's a Yoga practice for that. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

I've had the honor of being able to work with people struggling with all different types of obstacles, and Yoga has always been able to help. No, Yoga is not a magic pill that instantly cures you of your woes, but with patience and consistency, it's able to produce remarkable results. Yoga does not claim to cure everything, but at the very least, it gives you the ability to accept the hand you've been dealt with more peace of mind. 

How does Yoga do this? 

With the inventions of modern society, processes in our body that was designed for specific functions have now been thrown all out of whack. One of the biggest problems we face today is the constant activation of our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the fight, flight, or freeze response, is in charge of getting us ready for a predator attack or anything else that threatens to harm us. With the lifestyle of modern society however, this same response is turned on anytime we get cut off on the freeway or receive a dreaded email from our boss. Imagine how many times throughout the day this happens to us. And then imagine how this constant state of alertness impacts our health. The opposite of this mechanism in our body is the parasympathetic nervous system. This is our body in rest. This system is responsible for the mechanisms that renew, replenish, and recover our body. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system work exclusively of one another, so when one is on, the other must be off. Meaning, if we are always in a state of alertness, then we never give our bodies the ability to rest and recover. And just like any well functioning machine, when it's never given a chance to rest, it starts to break down over time. This is how injuries and diseases start to manifest in the body. 

Luckily for us, Yoga is particularly adept at teaching us how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Over time, and when done properly, a yoga practice of pranayama (breath work), meditation, and asana teaches the body how to respond to modern stressors with a little more ease and peace. When you give your mind the peace it wants, the body will have the clarity and tools it needs to heal. 

Is It Yoga?

“There is a lot of confusion in the yoga world today – it is not that yoga teachers and students aren’t sincere, but they are sincerely confused”

This was just one of the home truths shared by A.G. Mohan on his recent visit to New Zealand. Although he said it with typical good humour – he wasn’t joking! Mohan has studied, practiced and taught yoga for over 40 years and had the great privilege of being a close personal student of the legendary yoga master T. Krishnamacharya for eighteen years. He is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable yoga teachers living today. When he comes out with a statement like that, we should all stop and listen!



School of Life

Yesterday, I came to a realization. I realized that life is but one big school and death is it's graduation. Stay with me. I promise it's not as dark as it sounds. 

This is how I see it. From grade school to undergraduate to graduate school, you’re always expected to know a bit more than you did the previous year. Each class lesson is an opportunity to learn and prepare yourself for your next exam. And how well you do depends on a variety of factors, but includes some combination of circumstance, self-effort, and attitude. 

Similarly, this is life. In life, you’re constantly faced with life lessons. Some lessons are easier to see and easier to overcome while others are more subtle and harder to overcome. And your ability to overcome these obstacles, again, depend on some combination of circumstance, self-effort, and attitude. 

What makes the school of life tough though is the fact that you were never informed of your attendance at this school, and frankly, you have no choice. Additionally, you aren't always aware of the lessons you’re being taught and you’re not always given the tools to succeed, which can be extremely frustrating. What’s worst is that most of us are told a lie that once we leave this traditional system of education, that it’s time for us to take everything we have learned and go prove ourselves. It becomes more of a “do or die” mentality, leaving very little room for failure. 

How scary and overwhelming is that? Let’s look at life through the lens of school. If life really is a school, how would you treat and react to experiences in your life differently?

For me, I would allow myself to try new things and fail a little bit more. Because just like in school, at the end of the day, everything will work itself out. You may not always see it right away, because the school of life takes more time, but the light at the end of the tunnel is always there. You just have to trust and allow yourself to guide the way. Even when you fail a class, it's okay. Somehow, you figure out a way to make it up and continue on. It may take some of us a little longer to figure things out, but who says we all have to move through it at the same pace? 

I would definitely take more risks and experiment a little more because it’s okay. I’ll have at least tried. Because when I look back on my years in high school or college, I never regretted the things I did, only the things I didn't do, the things I wanted to try but never got around to, or was too scared to. Not that everything I ever did was the right thing for me, but I got to learn that lesson first hand and I never had to wonder. 

I would take things less seriously and not be so hard on myself. When you see life as a series of classes and lessons you're meant to learn from and not this daunting, cut-throat, real world thing everyone talks about, you realize how unimportant most things are that we stress over. 

I would be more open. I want to be open to the lessons life is trying to teach me. I'm meant to experience not only the good in life, but the bad, because with each circumstance, there's a lesson in there for me. A lesson that will help me be a better person.

Why does any of this matter? Because life should be enjoyable. We've been blessed with the ability to think and feel in ways most animals can't, so we have to take advantage of this. Why must we waste our time dwelling in misery when there's so much happiness to be enjoyed? What are these duties and responsibilities that we have to fulfill? Who benefits from us acting this way? When we're laying on our deathbeds, none of this will matter. Regardless of your beliefs about life after death, all of these superficial, material accomplishments will leave us and will mean nothing. The only thing that matters is how we feel in that moment. Are we content and satisfied with how we lived our life, or are we filled with regrets and wishing for more time? 

I'm not saying to shun society and all of life's responsibilities. I just want to enjoy every year in this school of life. I know the only thing that will matter to me is that I'm surrounded by people I love and I got to do and see everything I wanted to, plus more. I won't care about what's in my bank account or what legacy I left behind. Sure, all of that is a bonus, but not the priority. So from here on out, I vow to take life a little less seriously, to go easy on myself, to listen to my needs, to worry less, and to enjoy there here and now. 


The eightfold path of Yoga teaching by Patanjali includes the practice of Yamas and Niyamas, ethical observances and restraints. In conjunction with our physical practice, we must practice these ethical observances and restraints in our daily lives. One particular Yama that has been on my mind lately is Aparigraha

Aparigraha is roughly translated to mean non-possessiveness or non-greediness. There are many ways to interpret what this means or how to practice it, but personally, this is how I've interpreted Aparigraha to mean for me.

Non-greediness and non-possessiveness in the physical sense means living a minimalist lifestyle. It means letting go of the need to have. We don't need to buy that pair of Yoga pants just because it looks good or just because everyone else has it. We don't need to have a TV set in every room. We don't need to have that brand new car. We can be happy with what we currently have. We can view material things simply as tools we need to carry out our daily lives -- the hunk of metal that transports us from point A to point B, the machine that allows us to enjoy performance art in the comfort of our own homes, the fabric that clothes us appropriately so that we may partake in society's activities. It's not to say that we should never allow ourselves to have new or nice things, but we should strive to not make it a crutch for our emotional well-being. If we ever feel we must have something to be happy, then this is a sign that we have an unhealthy relationship with the material. 

Beyond this obvious level of greed and possessiveness is the mental greed we tend to have towards our peers' financial and emotional successes. It's human tendency to lust after someone else's achievements, to desire to be in that high-powered position, to want the relationship our friend has, to be jealous of someone's skills and abilities, etc. Practicing Aparigraha means to let go of that need to want something that is not meant for us. This desire holds us back from being genuinely happy for our friends and family, and it denies us the ability to forge the path that is meant for us. When we're too busy wanting what someone else has, we can't see what we need. We all have our own paths in life. Lusting after another person's life blinds us from seeing our own path and denies us from recognizing the good in our own lives. 

A more positive way is to recognize the abundance in the world. There is more than enough to go around and to be shared. Someone else's financial success does not take away from your financial success. A friend getting engaged doesn't take away from your own chances of eventually sharing in that stage of life. Learning to shift my outlook, to recognize the abundance in the world, and to accept my own path has not only made me a happier person, but it's allowed me to have faith as life becomes harder and harder to predict.

Growing up, my family didn't have much so I would always get the hand-me-downs or I would have to share toys and food with my brother. This nurtured a very possessive quality within myself. I always felt like I didn't have enough, always wanting what friends and family had, always fighting with my brother for things, always wanting more. I was able to channel this constant need into a somewhat positive trait -- using it as a motivation to work hard and to earn what I wanted since I believed no one else could give me that. I would be outwardly happy for my friends and family's achievements and possessions, but I would always have that ounce of jealousy. The part of me that would think "Why can't I have that?" or "I'm happy, but I'll be even happier for them once I can have the same thing".  I have no regrets for this because it's gotten me to where I am today. 

But practicing Aparigraha has taught me is that there is something beyond this. An emotional place in myself where I can be genuinely happy for others and still work hard towards what is meant for me.  I've been able to let go of that need to have what everyone else has and to be happy with what I have. You are only given what you need, not more or less. The life that I have, the fortunes I've been granted, the misfortunes I've been dealt, they're all there for a reason. They've all led me to where I am today. Whatever opportunities and successes I'm meant to have will come when it is ready. This acceptance, coupled with learning to view the world with abundance rather than lack, has allowed me to be happy for others, without greed and jealousy. Not to say though, that this isn't a constant practice. It's easy to lose sight of this when I'm currently experiencing the downhill part of life's roller coaster, but with practice, the moments of genuine happiness for others and acceptance of my own fortunes outnumber the desire and greed.

Nothing worthwhile comes easily

"Nothing worthwhile comes easily" - Hamilton Holt

It's true. 

When I first started Yoga, I knew it was something I had always wanted to do, but it was intimidating. It seemed like an elite club for the strong and bendy. When I got past my initial fears of starting Yoga, I encountered a new struggle. It was a love/hate relationship with Yoga. I truly, deeply disliked every minute of class, until of course, savasana. Even the seemingly easy poses were hard. I couldn't get my body to what I wanted it to do and I couldn't get my mind to stop wandering. I did always feel great after practice, but it was tough to keep a persistent practice. I would always focus on the struggle and not the reward. 

It took a little bit of time, but Yoga eventually became enjoyable for me. I could more clearly see the benefits of my practice, during and outside of class. I began looking forward to Yoga and felt a "need" to practice. Now, Yoga is a part of me and my life. I can't really imagine it any other way and that's the driving factor behind my desire to teach. I want to be able to share the benefits of the practice with as many people as I can, and I want to be there to hold their hands through the initial growing pains. 

Yes, Yoga can be hard, especially when starting out, but the benefits reaped are more than worthwhile. 

Get on that mat, practice, and you shall see.