Life can be stressful in the best of times. These days, families have even more challenges as they stay at home, studying and working together. Students miss their friends and teachers, many jobs and internships are on hold, and the future seems unpredictable. The new routines can cause anxiety or frustration for students with IDD or autism. Don’t you wish you had a toolbox that could fix those feelings and lower the stress level?
There’s no magic solution, but two local mindfulness instructors have some suggestions that can help. High Desert Education Service District (HDESD) employees Katie Diez and Suzy Hayes work with students in Life Skills and Special Education classes in Central Oregon. They use a curriculum called Yoga Calm. These lessons are designed to combine a series of yoga movements with mindfulness techniques. Students learn to practice self-control, compassion for others, and gratitude—which leads to calmer feelings, and more ability to pay attention.
“I define mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, with kindness and curiosity,” said Diez. As an occupational therapist for HDESD, Diez works with kids to support academic learning and social participation. She finds that positive behaviors learned through yoga and mindfulness help her students self-regulate and be less critical of themselves and others.
Hayes’ works as an autism consultant for HDESD, helping teachers and families support their students. She loves to see her older students gain confidence through these lessons and start taking the lead during classes. “We encourage peer-to-peer leadership. In some groups, I facilitate by adding some new things, but mostly stay out of the way. It’s beautiful to see that happen,” she said.
Several of the techniques taught in Yoga Calm classes can be done at home, too. Diez and Hayes suggest these mindfulness activities for transition students, as they follow stay-at-home guidelines. No special equipment is needed, and all of them can be practiced with family or friends, or on their own.
Deep Belly Breathing
Breath is the foundation of mindfulness, and good breathing takes practice. Breath in slowly through the nose, feel the air moving through your throat and into your chest, and exhale with intention. Deep belly breaths clear and calm the mind, like blowing away smoke from fired-up emotions. As Diez explained, slow, deep belly breaths can be an anchor to hold onto any time a person feels stressed.
The 5-4-3-2-1 Meditation
For days when things just aren’t going the right way, this activity can serve as a reset button. Kind of like rebooting your computer! Begin by sitting quietly, in a comfortable position. First, notice what is around you. In your mind, list five things that you see. Take a deep belly breath, then notice 4 different sounds. Another belly breath, then identify three items you are touching. Follow that with two different smells and one taste in your mouth. These are sensations that are always around us, but we rarely think about them. Paying attention to the five senses grounds us in the present and brings calmness.
Practicing gratitude has been shown to make people feel happier and less anxious. This daily habit can be as simple as sending a positive message to a friend, or setting an intention for the day every morning. Some people practice gratitude by keeping a journal to list the things they are grateful for in their lives. Others make a habit of sending positive thoughts and good wishes to the people they love. Gratitude practices can take many forms, but they always help to make us feel good!
A mandala is a circular design often created out of colored sand, Mandalas can be beautiful works of art, but they don’t last. After a mandala is finished, the wind blows it away. Mandalas teach us to let things go, and to be open to change. They can be made out of anything and be any size. Hayes and Diez suggest making mandalas while on a walk in the woods. Gather sticks, rocks, and other materials from the forest floor, and find a space to make your design. Creating the mandala is meditation in itself! And then leave it behind, allowing the design to fall apart and become part of the forest again. Their video guide to nature mandalas offers ideas on how to choose a location, collect natural objects, and create beautiful designs.
Editors Note: Consider creating your mandalas in designated parks, in areas where the design won’t disrupt other people’s enjoyment of the park. Be respectful of wilderness areas, where hikers should leave no trace of their visit—not even a mandala!