I’m very excited to continue our series of interviews with mindfulness experts with my American friend Jana York. Jana has taught both children and adults internationally, and she has even written a fantastic mindfulness book that is perfect for educators and their students.
In this interview, you will learn how mindfulness has impacted the lives of others, as well as the beauty of the ripple effect. There are some wonderful suggestions for how to introduce mindfulness and allow it to grow authentically, as well as favorite activities for both children and adults.
You’ll learn a lot from her in this interview. So I’m thrilled to be able to share her wisdom with you today.
Now let’s get rolling…
Jana York considers herself to be fortunate in her life and career. She had the honor of serving as a civilian in the role of a Health Promotion Educator for the U.S. military for over 30 years. She was a mindfulness champion for military community in Japan for several years, and this is where she feels her journey to awareness began.
Jana believes that mindfulness has guided her to fully experience what is happening now with a greater appreciation, whether it is joy, sorrow or holding compassion for herself and others. She humbly proclaims it as her Superpower.
Q: Where did you first learn about mindfulness? What was your journey?
Jana: I was first introduced to mindfulness by an Army Physician, in 2010. He had a deep interest in the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) study and its role in health and disease. He was looking for effective and proven treatments for post-traumatic stress (PTS), suicide prevention, and improving well-being in the military community. He shared his meditation practice with me and inspired me to start my own. This helped me immensely with awareness and my appreciation for the present moment. What began as a conversation about his research, and his training with mindfulness mentors at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness led to offering mindfulness sessions to military and civilians working on the Army base.
We began offering 8-week courses strongly based on the well-known Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) curriculum, which consisted of inquiry and experiential practice. We were fortunate to have Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli share their teachings and insights with us. Their wisdom evoked a passion in me to share the potential for mindfulness within all of us. Having these experiences with mindfulness guru’s is part of why I feel so fortunate.
Three of the graduates from our 8-week courses were inspired and carried their enthusiasm to their schools. One was a middle school principal. She saw the importance of mindfulness and made a commitment to incorporating it into her school. She gathered teachers and school counselors and they began introducing mindfulness to their students, which led to a “Mindful Minute” where the entire school pauses in stillness during morning announcements. Another teacher and coach developed a mindfulness program for athletes, teaching them concepts like flow, present-moment awareness and how to be in the zone. Her team won the championships that year, and they attribute part of their success to Mindfulness!
These are just two examples of how introducing mindfulness led to others to sharing, growing, and implementing it along their paths.
My curiosity for learning about mindfulness was growing rapidly and I took courses from two highly accredited organizations: Mindfulness in Schools Project, referred to as dot b (.b) and Mindful Schools based out of the US.
Chris: That’s great!
Q: After becoming certified to teach, what did you do next?
Jana: I found my passion in teaching children. I love helping adults, but there is a special connection that resonates with me when I see a child learn to calm themselves or show a random act of compassion to others.
I became very eager to share social emotional learning skills and mindfulness concepts with teachers to help them in the classroom, especially because there is so much anxiety in world. The surgeon general has declared a mental health crisis among youth!
I approached the elementary school administration, asking if I could conduct an 8-week program with 15-minute sessions 2 times a week with 4th grade students as a pilot program. I used deep breathing techniques to get me through the proposal meeting. This wasn’t a shoe in, and I had to do a lot of convincing and present research studies. As you know schools and teachers don’t feel they have time to add to their already demanding schedules and time constraints. Not to mention, “What is this mindfulness stuff?”
The 8 weeks pilot was a success, and my nerves were finally calmed as I truly believed the kids got it!
We did lots of surveys and gathered feedback which helped to support an ongoing program. My good friend and colleague (Julie) continues to teach mindfulness in her classrooms and her school is supporting the project some 7 years later. We (Julie) share a gratitude practice together daily of three good things that have been in our midst. Julie and I send a daily text message to each other stating 3 good things that have happened to us each day. We have been diligent on this for over 4 years. It is a truly positive and grateful part of each day.
Chris: Thanks for sharing and for your success.
Q: You mentioned surveying the students, did they respond openly? What did they like and dislike about learning mindfulness?
Jana: Documentation was very important especially working for the military, so I did pre and post surveys. I will be happy to share the survey tools I used if anyone is interested. Some of the children were skeptics in the beginning, and those turned out to be the most involved. I would love to share what they had to say, but it may take too long.
Chris: You have me curious, would you share a few?
Jana: As far as dislikes, it was noticeable that they had a hard time being still, so we often began with some types of movement.
I recall a 6th grader writing that he couldn’t sleep due to his monkey mind (busy mind). He says he used the body scan and slept like a Baby!
There was a 4th grader that shared that she was pushed in the mud and got her new pants dirty. She was so mad and was about to yell at her friend. She says she took deep breaths, and the person came over and said they were sorry. She was so glad she paused because she might have regretted her words and lost the friendship.
Mindfulness really can help with reducing bullying in schools and that is what I tell the teachers.
Other students said that mindfulness helped them with eating by paying attention to the smells and tastes of food. By taking their time to use all their senses when outside in nature and doing finger breathing. These are many of the mindfulness activities you share in your activity cards and books, which is something else I feel fortunate to have.
Chris: Gaining feedback from children is an excellent validator and good idea for mindfulness teachers.
Q: You taught in the International schools, was it different teaching a variety of nationalities and if so, how?
Jana: I have taught to US schools in Japan and International schools in Thailand.
I have found that kids are kids with a lot of the same silliness, concerns and fears, and anxiety no matter where they live. It can be different in some respects.
Growing up as a daughter of military parents, I was assured of one truth: change is constant. My place to cuddle with my family, share my toys and call home was uprooted three times before I turned nine. It was the norm, but certainly didn’t feel normal.
On average, military families move every three years, so there is a potential for a host of stressors: like separation from the United States, adjusting to life in a foreign country, being without familiar friendships, facing possible military parent deployments, and reintegration into the family upon return from military commitments.
Students in these situations face the daunting task of making new friends and finding acceptance in their new community, along with the more common realities of test anxiety, lack of self-confidence and emotional dysregulation.
Being aware of how mindfulness has helped me face adversity and become more resilient, I saw mindfulness as a perfect tool to help deal with these challenges.
Q: How long have you been teaching Mindfulness, and will you share some insights and lessons learned?
I have been a mindfulness educator and practitioner for over a decade.
1. What I have found as the best way to gain a child’s attention is to make them feel comfortable, relaxed, and safe. They have an innate capacity to be curious, so thrive on the playful side especially in the beginning. Lessons do not need to be complicated or long, yet they do need lots of repetition. A quick lesson can teach a lot. The goal is for them to eventually guide themselves for what they are needing at the moment.
2. Choose your words wisely and use common language. Avoid terms like meditation and yoga, these are more appropriate for adults and rest assured the children will take these words to their parents. Sitting still like a frog, alligator breaths, or sumo wrestler mindful movement are better suited and stimulate the imagination.
This is part of what mindfulness is all about. Being attentive, creative, and focused.
3. Be authentic! Its ok to show your vulnerable side. I feel a close connection to the students when I am honest and share the emotions I experience.
4. Teach mindfulness to your level of understanding and personal practice. In other words, you don’t need to implement trauma sensitive or psychology methods if you haven’t been trained in that area.
5. Remember we are developing a growth mindset that helps the child and the teacher, one breath at a time.
Chris: Good Advice and we all grow from lessons learned.
Q: What is your favorite activity you like to do with students?
Jana: I love so many and with each class brings new ideas for activities.
My absolute favorite is a Gratitude activity called Farm to Fork, aka Grapeful
It is more of a discussion-type activity, reflecting compassion and appreciation. Each student is given a grape and we trace its path from a seed, observing with a sense of appreciation for all the people, nature, love and nurturing it took to bring a piece of fruit to their plate. There are several ways to do this by listing on the board or writing on your own and sharing. I like to do this as a discussion for group involvement.
The first time I did this activity, I placed a grape in each student’s hand and told them this was a lesson on gratitude. I was a little nervous thinking about how I could convince them to be grateful for one silly grape. One student blurted out, “I get it, we need to be grapeful.” To this day, I am not sure if he misspoke or if it was a profound epiphany. We all had a laugh and attention soared.
Chris: Thank you, I like the engagement piece of this activity and how it demonstrates that it takes so many and so much to bring things to our table. A wonderful lesson in appreciation.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to share to teachers or parents about introducing mindfulness to children?
Jana: If I could offer a piece of advice, it is to trust that there is value in planting the seeds of mindfulness. Set a clear intention and know that it is okay to stay small and simple, focusing on just one group, one class or a single child. When we react to the need for quantity over quality, before you know it, we are overwhelmed.
Introducing mindfulness will begin to flourish on its own and you will see the ripple effects, especially when students grasp the concepts and tools. They will begin sharing it with their peers, parents, and friends. Other teachers will see the results and want to engage in mindfulness with their own students.
Lastly, remember to take some breaks from all the distractions of daily life to balance and center yourself; pause for 5-10 minutes to observe your thoughts without judging them, feel your heartbeat and notice your body breathing. These pauses are the goodness of mindfulness, and it is time well spent!
Q: Obviously, the initial pandemic had an impact on many lives. I feel listening to other’s story helps us connect. Were you able to find any positive outcomes?
Jana: The positives were there, I just had to find them. I was enjoying living in Thailand – The Land of Smile as an expat and teaching mindfulness part time. We went into lockdown quickly and for extended periods of time. We, like many others were not allowed to leave our homes except to buy groceries.
I needed a way to redirect my focus to keep from letting anxiety and worry take over. I did two things that changed my life. One was learning to juggle. I know this sounds funny, but it taught me some valuable lessons. Just to be clear, I am not advocating that you teach children to juggle, it was just something that worked for me to keep my mind and body in an attentive place. Many people have mastered this skill and I could not imagine being able to toss three balls in the air with only 2 hands and keep it going, yet it was always something I wanted to learn. I set a goal to practice every day and pay attention to my thoughts. As you would imagine I quickly became frustrated, and doubtful. I stuck with it and kept positive, not letting my thoughts override my desire to conquer this skill. I learned patience, determination, the importance of practice, resilience, and self-love. I even journaled about it.
After feeling mastered, my confidence grew and I decided to do something else I had been procrastinating about, which was writing a children’s chapter book. I used many of the same skills to write as I did to learn how to juggle.
Chris: Congratulations on your book and for being a juggler!!
Q: Would you tell us more about U Is for Understanding – Claire’s Journey toward Mindfulness and other offerings you want to share?
My writing journey began as a way to share mindfulness activities in a curriculum format from my experience of teaching internationally. I was blocked in writing for a long time and then it suddenly occurred to me to make the book a storytelling approach so teachers and parents can introduce mindfulness and social emotional learning at their own pace and preferable over several weeks through engaging activities that appear in the story.
A short synopsis is – Claire is an energetic 8-year-old with a colorful imagination. She is learning about Mindfulness in her classroom and her experiences overflow into the daily challenges of life. I felt the book needed more support, so I created a book companion that includes a full description of over 30 fun and engaging activities for parents and teachers to use with children. In addition to the book companion, I began to offer workshops, one and one chats and any other way that I could be helpful to inspire others to be more mindful. Lastly, another good fortune I have had was a video creation of the first 3 chapters read by Brigitte, from Kindness Classroom. Thanks for introducing her to me Chris! Brigitte is a wonderful storyteller and teaches a few of the activities in the 20-minute video. I hope people will like and subscribe as she did this out of the kindness of her heart. Thanks Brigitte!
You can watch the first three chapters of the book here and you’ll find “U is for Understanding” on Amazon here. If you like what you see then consider subscribing to Brigitte’s Youtube channel and supporting Jana for her outstanding work by checking out her book here.
And thank you Chris for inviting me to be part of your series. I have enjoyed the other interviews and I hope we can do more together soon.
Chris: You’re welcome and again thanks for all you do!
Q: Anything else you want to share before we go?
Jana: Yes, and thank you for asking. I want to thank you for all the support you have given me personally, from your advanced praise of my book, to authoring your helpful mindfulness books and curriculum and the wonderful new activity cards, which have been very effective for me in teaching kids and parents. You are, in my opinion, the #1 Mindfulness Dad!
I do have a challenge for you. I wonder if you would be willing to let me interview you? You are such a gracious person and have so many amazing activities with a beautiful story to share as a mindfulness expert. We could show the world in a nutshell some of the practices that you have created, love and how you are able to connect people with mindfulness.
What say you Chris Bergstrom? Are you up for the Challenge? The audience is waiting?
Chris: Thank you very much, Jana :) I’m considering taking you up on your offer :-)
Thank you for reading this far… I hope the amazing Jana York provided you with new inspiration!
Let her know what you think in the comments below or email me and I’ll forward your thoughts to her.
Chief Mindfulness Ninja @ Blissful Kids
#1 Best-Selling Author of: Ultimate Mindfulness Activity Book: 150 Playful Mindfulness Activities for Kids and Teens
Chris Bergstrom is a bestselling mindfulness author, a leader in the field of mindfulness, and the founder of BlissfulKids.com, a community of parents, educators, and therapists dedicated to children’s mindfulness and psychology, with over 15 years of experience facilitating meditation and psychological interventions to people of all ages.
Chris is a certified mindfulness facilitator, trained to teach mindfulness to students in K-12, and has received psychology and mindfulness training from UPenn, UCLA, UNC, Mindful Schools, and Mindfulness Without Borders.