What does a mindfulness practice for kids look like? Are they sitting quietly on their yoga mats, perfectly still, focusing on their breath?
Perhaps the practice begins with a less obvious and more achievable act, one that doesn’t require them to reign in their playful roaming tendencies. As Adam Avin, the fifteen-year-old founder of the empathetic Wuf Shanti kids’ yoga program says: “A smile is a road to peace—one that kids can learn early, and something that can change the world.”
Shanti means “peace” and wuf refers to their mascot, a “master” yoga dog.
You’ll see this master dog featured throughout Wuf Shanti’s multimedia effort to bring yoga to as many children as possible. That includes Wuf Shanti books, online classes, and even an app. The goal of the program, which Adam began envisioning at age 10, is to reduce increasingly common forms of violence among children—including gun violence, self-harm, and bullying—through mindful practices that can help them grow into, as Wuf’s website says, “peace-loving adults.”
“Think well to be well,” the slogan of Wuf Shanti, is advice that Adam’s great grandfather passed down to him at an early age—along with “Smile and the world will smile with you.” At its heart, Wuf Shanti is an homage to this man, a natural yogi who taught Adam the value of a positive mindset.
Wuf Shanti has received endorsements from Maroon 5, Tiger Woods, Psychology Today, local PBS stations in Florida, and the Children’s Television Network—which distributes Wuf Shanti videos in children’s hospitals across the nation, and internationally via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, XBox, and PlayStation. Wuf Shanti’s message is becoming not only widespread, but most importantly, increasingly accessible to children. Adam has presented at TedxYouth on the benefits of mindfulness in education. He also recently hosted the international Mindful Kids Peace Summit, which was released on the anniversary of the Parkland school shootings.
Here below, Adam shares the more practical elements of his superhero ambitions—most notably, how he manages to make meditation, a key component of mindfulness practice, accessible for kids.
1. How do you make a mindful practice like meditation sound fun to a room full of kids?
Well, if it’s young kids, then I can read the Wuf Shanti books to them or show them the Wuf Shanti videos. Those are really fun with great messages. I can also use the stuffed animal Wuf Shanti—but especially when someone is in the actual mascot costume, it’s really easy to make it fun! I can also show them how things like music and coloring can become mindful practices that make them feel happy and calm. We talk about our feelings like happy, sad, angry, and we talk a lot about kindness to ourselves, our friends, and the world. A lot of kids don't know how to express or even understand how they're feeling, let alone cope with their emotions. Our aim is to teach them these skills at an early age so that they can develop into thriving adults.
We have lots of different fun games in our early learning curriculum, like our gratitude and laughing games, and we show how things like smiles are contagious. We use props like the Hoberman Sphere, our Happy Ball, and Beanie Babies. For tweens and teens, we don’t try to make it fun. We talk in a more serious way. First, about why meditation is important for us, and how it helps us not only with our emotions and stress, but also with academics, sports, focus, health and wellness, self-care, interactions with others, and internal happiness. We go through the physiological science of what happens to our bodies when we get upset—like our breathing, our heart rate, our blood pressure, muscle tension—and how that affects us, the people around us, and our relationships.
Maybe we should also make it more fun for the teens…someone recently suggested to us that we get a real dog, like a therapy dog, and name him Wuf Shanti, and bring him with us when we visit the teens. That would be fun.
2. What type of meditation do you teach (seated, moving, or both), and what factors influence your choice?
We teach both seated and moving, and it really depends on a number of factors.
Are the kids younger or older? Younger kids like to move around and be silly and have fun. They can still learn poses and meditation, but it's harder for them to sit still for more than 15 to 30 minutes at a time.
What’s the environment? Is it a school or a hospital? It's harder for kids who are hooked up to a lot of tubes to move freely. We do move some, especially if their doctor wants them to and approves it. But a lot of it is done while they are sitting or laying down. More important than whether they are seated, though, is making them smile and laugh and bringing some joy and fun into their lives. So if they can dance and be with other children in the room, then that's always what we try to do. The happiness helps them heal—at least that's what I believe. And their parents are happy too because they see their kids happy.
More important than whether they are seated is making them smile and laugh and bringing some joy and fun into their lives.
Timing is also a factor. Do we have 5, 15, or 30 minutes to do a practice? You can do short sitting meditations. But since little kids like to move, if we only have 5 minutes and we’re teaching youngsters, we'll probably do a moving meditation, something silly.
Also, how many kids are in the room? Are there 2 kids or 30? If there are 30 kids in the room, it's a lot harder to move around, for example, to play “go on a vacation," which is one of the yoga games we play. Or jogging through the jungle, another game we play [a Kidding Around Yoga song that Wuf Shanti has permission to use].
3. When do you sequence meditation? At the very end of class or as a centering exercise to get kids connecting with their bodies and breath?
We’ve done it both ways. There’s no rule. I have to see how I feel, and how the kids feel. Sometimes they ask for a certain meditation because they really like it. Or if we’re in a school environment and the teachers have a specific goal they want to achieve, we can tailor the practice to that. Maybe there are too many kids who are not being nice to themselves or to each other, and so we’ll do a compassion meditation. Or maybe the kids are too high energy, so we'll do a calming relaxation.
Meditations can be used for these and so many other reasons—including increasing energy, focus, self-love, and positivity. I usually do something super relaxing at the end of a session to give them peace for the rest of their day. And I make sure to tell them that they can take that feeling with them throughout the day.
4. Do you encourage kids to be vocal during meditation or is it generally a silent process? And what kind of visualizations are generally helpful in terms of keeping them feeling safe, grounded, and focused?
It’s not easy to keep the little ones quiet for longer than a few minutes. Younger kids also can’t sit still for long, so you have to keep it much shorter. We can use meditations where they move and speak, so it’s easier for them to stay engaged and interested. Like we can do a walking meditation, or focus on the drum beat in their favorite music, or the laughing meditation, which is always a favorite. Or the Peace Begins With Me, or Think Well to Be Well mantras, where you tap your fingers to your thumb one word at a time [you can watch an example of one of these practices here].
The older kids, the tweens and teens, usually prefer silent meditations, and that’s something we try to respect. We teach them to use a sound or mantra, which they may say out loud in the privacy of their own home—in groups, it’s usually silent so that everyone can go within. We always let them know that there are resources for them [such as support groups, guidance counselors, mentors, teachers, and friends] if the meditation brings up anything they want to talk about. So they know they aren’t alone, and there are people that care.
They really like the chakra and visualization meditations we offer, I think because they have a lot of positive messages and imagery that make them feel strong and safe. We also always share with them the gratitude practice, even though it’s usually the hardest one for teens. I think it’s really important that they practice repeating loving, kind affirmations to themselves so that hopefully they’ll start to believe them.
5. How do you manage disruptions and distractions and maintain group cohesion during kids’ meditation practices?
With younger kids, we just have to go with the flow, unless someone is really being mean. I like to make kindness tables, with feelings worksheets, or even just plain paper, and I invite them to color something about how they’re feeling or what made them happy today.
Once with the little kids, I did have the sounds of construction banging, and at first, it was really distracting and annoying. But then we used it, and we took big breaths and made silly om sounds every time the crane banged. For older kids, we give them an out. We don’t want them to feel that they are being forced to do practices. They need to feel it’s their choice and that they’re in control. There’s no judgment, so if they don’t want to do something, they don’t have to. They can sit there quietly, or fall asleep. Unless they start to snore or something, then I’d gently nudge them awake.
But that’s never actually happened to me yet. I haven’t had anyone yet that was really disruptive or unreasonable. Hopefully, my training will help me know what to do, if and when that ever happens.
Experience Adam's meditations on Yoga International: