Take a breath: A meditation guide for families

If you’ve got young kids in your life, you know: life can get really stressful really fast. One minute, you’re calmly eating lunch, and the next ... somebody spilled milk, somebody kicked somebody else, and someone needs your help right this minute.

It’s a lovely practice to be present in the moment, even the hard ones, but that’s easier said than done.

Kelly Smith from Bloomington, Minn., is a parent and has been teaching yoga and meditation to other parents for years. And they always had the same questions — ‘How can I be more present?’ and ‘how do I realistically start meditating’ when there’s a whole lot of activity happening in my house?

MPR News guest host Emily Bright spoke with Kelly about her book “Mindful in Minutes: Meditation for the Modern Family” to answer those questions.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: This next segment is for people with young kids in their life. You know how life can get stressful really fast. One minute, you're calmly eating lunch or trying to. And then the next, somebody has spilled their milk, someone else has kicked somebody else, and someone needs your help right this minute.

It is a lovely practice to be present in the moment, even the hard ones. But that is easier said than done. Bloomington's Kelly Smith is a parent and has been teaching yoga and meditation to other parents for years. And they always had the same questions. How can I be more present? How do I realistically start meditating when there's a whole lot of activity happening in my house?

She wrote a book called Mindful in the Minutes-- Meditation for the Modern Family to answer those questions. And she joins me now. Hi, Kelly. Thanks for being here.

KELLY SMITH: Hi. How are you doing?

INTERVIEWER: I'm good. So let's start with just a primer what's the difference between meditation and mindfulness?

KELLY SMITH: Ooh, this is one of my favorite questions. So I like to think about the mind as a light bulb. So when you are practicing mindfulness, it's like you have your mind. It's a light bulb. You're turning the light up all the way. It's shining in all directions so you can be present with your one thing. When you're meditating, which is single pointed concentration, it's like taking that light bulb and turning it into a laser pointer and focusing that laser at just one thing.

INTERVIEWER: OK, so why meditation for families?

KELLY SMITH: It's funny because I thought that I was really well equipped, being a meditation teacher, to handle stress and anxiety and things like that. But when you become a parent, it unlocks this new level of your ability to experience stress and anxiety. I mean, you know this as a parent. It's like just a new level gets unlocked.

And I found that this is something that I not only needed as I became a parent, but it's also something I've heard from my students and my clients as well that are parents. And they want to be more present with their kids. Or they want to manage their stress, their anxiety, or begin weaving mindfulness and meditation into their households to help support their kids in that way.

INTERVIEWER: Now, I imagine that if you're teaching meditation to kids, you're using different strategies than adults. How do you teach kids how to meditate?

KELLY SMITH: Definitely. So we sometimes get a little bit silly. We have a lot of fun, although my big general statement is that meditation is not that hard and not that serious, no matter what age you are practicing at. But when it comes to meditation with kids-- and I do this in my book. I break it down with three big age groups.

So I call it the little ones, which is kind of like your five and under, your six and under, your adolescents, and then your teens. And so, depending on what age group you're working with, you might do different things. So the little ones, that's lots of fun, like games. That's like going out for a mindfulness walk and talking about what all of your senses are doing.

Maybe with adolescents, you're teaching them some breath techniques so they can start managing anxiety or stressful social situations. Then teens, that's going to be a little bit closer to when you're teaching an adult. They have such a great capacity for understanding the idea of meditation. So that's just giving them the tools that they need for their toolbox at that time.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think incorporating mindfulness is so important for families?

KELLY SMITH: Studies tell us that not only is there a huge benefit to togetherness in general, especially togetherness in the emotional space, which is something that can be a really beautiful aspect of doing a family meditation or mindfulness practice. But the first thing that really comes to mind to me when you ask that question is the huge amount of stress and anxiety that our children are currently experiencing. The world that we live in is very busy. It's very fast.

Our kids and ourselves, we're overstimulated. And it's like we have all of these things coming at us from all different directions, but we haven't been taught these simple strategies to really be able to be introspective or to take mindful pauses or to even just manage our emotions as they're on this up and down, high and low all day long.

INTERVIEWER: So what changes have you seen in yourself or the people work with who've really gotten into a mindfulness practice?

KELLY SMITH: It's funny because mindfulness can really sneak up on you. The things that I hear most commonly might surprise you, but the biggest one that I've heard from my students, my clients is that they are less irritated on the road when they're driving. So if they were kind of a high-strung driver, and they really describe the sensation of the big deals aren't as big anymore. So that could be driving on the road.

I think about it when I'm at home and I'm with-- I have a toddler and another one on the way. And toddlers have that ability to just really push your patience to the absolute max. When you get snappy with your kids, which we all do, if you unintentionally get frustrated and you yell at them, it's never the actual thing that they do. It's not the-- I loved in the intro, the spilled milk. It's not the spilling the dog's water dish for the 10th time that day.

That's not the thing. It's all the pressure that's building up continually throughout the day that we never alleviate. And I've learned from my own experience and from my students and clients that you see those changes and those benefits in the little moments, where we're just less reactive, a little less hot-headed at times. And we can kind of keep our cool in those real-world little moments that sometimes get us activated.

INTERVIEWER: Anything that makes it easier to get everyone to brush their teeth at night, I am all for it. I think that would really--

KELLY SMITH: Yes, absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: I'll bet it would really help just adjusting family dynamics, right? Just take things down a notch.

KELLY SMITH: Yes, absolutely. For us, it's getting out of the door. You remember those days, trying to get a two-year-old out the door. We might as well leave an hour early and we'll still be late. It happens.

INTERVIEWER: So you write in your book that there isn't just one way to meditate. So give me some examples of different ways to do so.

KELLY SMITH: Yeah, so meditation, like I said earlier, it's single pointed concentration, so focusing all of your attention on one thing. Now, you get to choose what that thing is. So that could be your breath. That could be a mantra that you're repeating again and again. That could be a body scan if you're falling asleep at night and the body is feeling really tense. It could be really anything.

But as long as we are focusing on just one particular thing, you're meditating. And so you get to pick what you want to focus on. And that's how you can really design a meditation practice that works well and resonates for you.

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned mantras. Tell me more about that. I know you write about that in your book.

KELLY SMITH: Yeah, so each chapter in the book-- and it's kind of broken up into these different sections. But the main section has 33 different topics that I found came up most commonly in my household and also in the households of people that I know, so things like frustration, self-confidence, resilience, quieting the mind, gratitude, things like that. Each chapter comes with its own set of mantras.

And what I really enjoy about a mantra practice, which just means sacred sound or vibration, think of it as like an affirmation but the meditation version. And I have found that mantras are so powerful for kids of all ages and all the way into adulthood because it's this positive, nurturing statement that you can repeat to yourself again and again.

And when I was writing this book, one of my editors, actually, who is a mother, she sent me this email that's always stuck in my mind because it was so special to me. And she has a daughter who is struggling with nightmares. And she said that they started using the mantras in the book that she could repeat to herself before bed to remind herself that she's safe where she's sleeping, that her body needs rest. And just having those few statements that she could say again and again in those stressful moments was so powerful for her and her family. And I just think it's really easy to integrate into most things we're already doing.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, absolutely. So, Kelly, we've got about a minute or so. Could you lead us through a quick meditation?

KELLY SMITH: I would love to. Anything in particular you want to do, Emily?

INTERVIEWER: I'll leave it up to you.

KELLY SMITH: OK. So wherever you are listening-- if we're driving, though, let's be safe. So you're just going to create a long spine. And you're going to soften your shoulders. So just let your shoulders slide down your back.

And we're going to start by taking a big, deep breath in. So just inhale through the nose. And then open mouth exhale. Just sigh it out, letting go of any tension or stress.

And then let your breath to become effortless, so completely easy, just flowing in and out of your body. And on your next inhale, I want you to just follow the pathway that breath takes. So feel it move in through the nose, down the throat to the expanding lungs. And then feel that process just naturally reverse itself as you exhale. We'll do that one more time, so just following the breath in and then following the breath out.

And then we're going to end our little minimeditation by just saying something kind to ourselves, whatever that is for you. And then we all just meditated for a minuteish.

INTERVIEWER: That was delightful. I imagine there are calm people, hopefully in parked cars, all over the state or their homes. And that seems like something that would be easy to just incorporate in a minute over the course of your day.

KELLY SMITH: Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: Well, Kelly, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

KELLY SMITH: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

INTERVIEWER: All right, that was Kelly Smith. She is the author of the book Mindful in Minutes-- Meditation for the Modern Family.

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