May 5, 2017

Stop Worrying about Preschool & just Teach Children to Breathe.

“The thing about meditation is: You become more and more you.” ~ David Lynch

Imagine for one bizarre moment that you are an elephant playing the saxophone.

Breathe air slowly up your wrinkly trunk and feel your lungs and belly swelling. Then, pursing your lips a bit, gently blow into your magnificent golden saxophone, creating a lovely song.

This breathing meditation, called “elephant breath,” is currently taught in primary schools around the UK by the acclaimed classical saxophonist, Amy Dickson, as part of her breath awareness campaign for children called “Take a Breath.”

I first heard of Amy Dickson about a month ago when I came across her BBC interview online. Despite the fact that classical saxophonists are extremely rare, what makes the Australian-born musician so remarkable is the fact that she taught herself how to utilize circular breathing while playing her saxophone. This means that, like didgeridoo players, she can breathe through her nose and blow air out of her mouth at the same time. The result is rather astonishing, as she performs long, intricate pieces without pausing to take a breath.

Dickson shares how in teaching herself circular breathing, she became fascinated with the breath and its profound calming effects when used properly. Just imagine how nerve-wracking it must be to perform in front of thousands of people on a regular basis.

Her decision to start “Take a Breath,” however, began during her tours to primary schools in the UK, where she learned about the scary increase in anxiety and other mental health issues that children are currently experiencing in our culture.

Studies have shown that children’s anxiety levels have increased every decade since the 1950s with no signs of going down.

In response to this realization, Dickson began teaching her “elephant breath” technique to children as a way to manage stress and (hopefully) lay the foundations for healthier teenagers and adults in future generations.

The project expanded over the years into what has now become a fully-fledged campaign teaching “relaxed breathing” to children all across the UK.

“It’s extraordinary,” she said in her interview, “I’ll have 600 children in front of me, all going [slowly inhaling and exhaling].”

As an Elephant Academy apprentice, I could only chuckle at the synchronicity of the term “elephant breath.” It was at the first meeting with my small group where the topic of meditation and anxiety paralysis came up. In a moment of inspiration I suggested a meditation challenge for the week, which was met with a resounding, “Hai!”

Little did I know, four months later I am still doing my same 10 minute breathing meditation every morning, with only a couple of leeway days in between.

Newsflash: I didn’t become a Zen monk with no worries, no stress, or a complete trust in the universe. Damn.

What I did become, however, was a person in deep contemplation of how children and young people (like myself) are devastated by anxiety, overwhelm, and depression on a daily basis.

One the one hand, I realize that we have been wired for what Omid Safi calls, “the disease of being busy.” As a university student, I know all too well the broken look we have when our health is overridden by deadlines and too much work. In many ways, our society is out of control in terms of the pressure and demands being put on us. We seem to live our lives “catching up” to where we think we should be, rather than experiencing the present moment.

Even when we’re not working, there is no space to simply be, as more and more of us become unhealthily attached to our smartphones and social media. Without that constant buzz, we feel lost, secluded, and alone. It has been found that even children as young as 11 are now on Twitter and Facebook.

Another possible cause for the rise of childhood anxiety is our deep sensitivity to the violence in our present world. I shared, in a piece I wrote a few months ago, how reading the news during the last months of 2016 had a serious impact on my mental, emotional, and physical health. It troubles me to think how disturbing our violence-orientated media must be for children. Just think about the poison that shows up on our newsfeeds and how that must make an 11-year-old feel. It’s not surprising to me that Amy Dickson would hear reports of anxious 5-year-olds.

Her “Take A Breath” campaign, however, is exactly what I think we need to support our young people.

She may not call “elephant breath” meditation, but in asking children to focus on their breath, she is asking them to focus on the one thing they can depend on in our inconstant world—their life force. It’s the part of themselves that is free from the demands of the external world and will always be with them.

When I settle down each morning for my breathing practice, I am honestly in ecstasy. I may not be completely stress-free, but meditation has given me a daily space to set aside my frantic busy mind and return to myself. Each inhale and exhale is like a silent mantra saying, “It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.” Starting each morning like this, I have noticed a distinct shift in my attitude and sense of peace as I go into my day.

I wish more young people were taught about the power of their breath, because I believe that it is a profound anchor of peacefulness and groundedness. True, it can’t take away the demands made on us, but anxious people are not going to sort out an anxious world.

We need to be peaceful inside ourselves before the outside world can change, and that starts with the way we guide our children towards living with presence and calmness.

For your enjoyment, here is a performance by Amy Dickson wherein she uses her remarkable circular breathing technique:



Author: Anthea van den Bergh
Image: TW Smith / Flickr
Editor: Danielle Beutell

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