Just walking into this room with Emily Grant makes you want to slow down and take a deep breath. The lights are dimmed, there’s soft music playing, and the room smells sweetly of lavender.
“Take a few deep breaths in, and exhale," Grant says. "Take another deep breath in, and exhale.”
This isn’t a yoga studio. It’s a classroom, where Grant guides Sunnyside High School’s meditation club.
“A lot of our students, when they go home, they’re not necessarily going home to a safe relaxing home environment, they may not even be going to a home, so having a space that melds between learning and safety and home, they might not mention it outright , but I know that having a comforting space feels really good," Grant says.
Grant is the school’s health counselor. She and English teacher Everardo Pedraza launched the meditation club last October, on the birthday of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. Today, the club is helping students find freedom from their stressful lives.
“What made me want to get involved was all this stress I’ve been having from all these classes, and my mom has cancer," says Brenda Landeros, a 17-year-old senior. “So yeah, I have to keep the level down.”
Meditation might seem like a practice reserved for yoga classes and Zen retreat centers. But more and more, a form of meditation – called mindfulness - is finding a place in schools.
“The condition of the brain and nervous system determine learning - it’s that simple,” says Chris McKenna, program director for Mindful Schools, a Bay Area-based group that teaches educators how to use mindfulness in the classroom.
He says students across the state are experiencing high levels of stress and trauma, and that affects their ability to learn.
“If the kid is stressed out and chronically in some sort of flight, fight or freeze mode from his environment, it doesn’t matter how many math problems or reading lessons or history lessons you try to pack in the brain, the brain is not in a learning-ready condition,” McKenna says.
In mindfulness, students learn to shift their attention from stressful thoughts to more sensory experiences, like their breathing, or the feeling of their feet on the ground.
“You have to give kids a way to shift gears of their brain and nervous system, you have to give them tools to actually allow them to work directly with states of stress, and until you do, you can’t really blame them for not paying attention,” he says.
He views mindfulness as an invaluable life skill. But the practice has been slower to take hold in Central Valley schools. The Sunnyside meditation club is believed to be the only one of its kind between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“There is a misconception about mindfulness perhaps being a spiritual practice or religious practice,” says Lori Granger, a psychotherapist and the director of the Center for Mindfulness in Fresno.
It’s more accurate to think of it as intentional mental health, she says.
“In the school, especially, it is a very secular practice that is one for health and well-being,” she says. It does not have to have spiritual underpinnings from which it came 2,500 years ago.”
On a recent Monday, Emily Grant leads a short meditation. About a dozen students sit in a circle and close their eyes.
When the students finish, they look more calm and relaxed.
It’s a feeling that 16-year-old Alexis Sanchez has come to treasure. She meditates to cope with her heavy load.
“My mom and the bills, and my dad, my real dad actually, those are the ones that are stressing me out really bad,” Sanchez says.
Sometimes, she meditates at home, and invites her mom or her little sister to join in.
“I help my mom pay the bills, I go to work to help her because my older sister works, but not enough so support all three girls,” she says.
And according to Grant, one of the benefits of meditation is anyone can practice it, at anytime, anywhere.
“I think what makes meditation special is it’s totally free,” she says. “You don’t need anything but you and your mind and your ability to focus for a period of time.”
It’s a skill that students in the club can can draw on this skill for the rest of their lives.