By Lisa Day-Lewis
As a mental health counselor working in a public school system, I am often challenged with not having effective immediate interventions for the children I work with. Through my education I was trained in therapies and techniques that were really designed to be delivered in weekly one-hour sessions over a period of months, beginning with rapport building and laying out a series of goals and objectives. Unfortunately the time I end up having to work with kids is typically only 5-20 minutes, and the goal is usually to get them back attending in the classroom. Truth be told, aside from the time limitations, I have often questioned the efficacy of many traditional Western counseling techniques when applied to kids. My question lies not so much in the techniques themselves, but in whether children are equipped to learn and utilize them. In today’s world, are we nourishing children in body and mind such that they will be successful at life, let alone school? That is the question that has led me to shift the focus of my interventions to incorporate Ayurveda.
Ayurveda for personal and professional support
It was my own physical and emotional challenges that let me to seek out and find Ayurveda in early 2017. While reading David Frawley’s book, Ayurveda and the Mind: the Healing of Consciousness, I was able to draw specific parallels between vata imbalance and so many of the behaviors we see in people, and more prominently children in recent times. Keeping vata balanced requires us to have sensory awareness, learn that what we take in affects each of the senses, and further learn how to create balance when we take in anything that disturbs that balance. These concepts, though seemingly basic, are absent from public education curriculum. Then, when we consider common causes of vata imbalance -- too much screen time, consuming violence through video games and TV, loud or unsettling noises, not enough sunlight -- it’s a wonder our children are functioning at all! To feel effective in my job, I knew then what I needed was to find a way to present information about vata imbalance to my students and offer them tools for balancing as a precursor to any other work I would do with them.
I started with creating a slideshow that could be presented as part of health class. The class would focus on “balancing through the senses” and offer ideas for a “toolkit for balancing.” In counseling we often talk about toolkits, and elementary school kids are an appropriate age for understanding the senses, so it seemed to me a good approach.
My presentation ended up containing 42 slides divided into sections based on the five senses. Each section contained information on what can cause imbalance, ways to counter that imbalance, and ideas of what one can put in a toolkit. But while creating, I realized that if kids were feeling out of balance at school there really wasn’t a place for them to go to calm down, utilize tools to balance, or even just take a break.
Making it come alive
I inquired about a small room attached to the nurse’s office, and she freely offered the space for me to create a calming room where students (and anyone else) could go to take a break. A few weeks later we had the room set up with an aromatherapy diffuser that also displayed nature sounds and colors, posters of nature scenes, a bed for lying down with a soft and a weighted blanket and eye pillow, a chair for meditation, a yoga mat, and a sensory cocoon. We brought in a small lamp for the room and supplied it with a sunlight bulb so we could turn off the fluorescents, and added a live bamboo plant that had previously lived in my office. I put some kid-friendly pictures of yoga poses on the walls and a guided visualization exercise near the bed.
Ideally I would be available to accompany students to what we ended up calling “the wellness room,” but for instances when I couldn’t, I created a binder with some tips (straight from Frawley’s book) on how students could take a balancing break if they were experiencing anxiety-related issues, such as inattention, aggression, anger, or sadness. I offered ideas for what scents they could diffuse, yoga poses they could try, and sensory items to utilize. We brought in a small frame with sand and water that could be rotated to watch the sand drip slowly down and reform at the bottom, some natural sorting stones, and putty for manipulation. I wanted to keep the items as natural as possible.
Now, with the space available to offer students, I was ready to deliver my presentation. The nurse, using information from the slideshow, made a fun Jeopardy game to do with the students to incentivize paying attention. Talking in front of groups is not my strength, so I took a note from my own pages and utilized the frankincense and sandalwood rollerball myself on the first day I would deliver the presentation!
Afterward, many of the students shared with me after that their parents used essential oils, or that they meditated or did some yoga at home, so I was very encouraged by the response. Most everyone retained enough to score points in the Jeopardy game and win a small prize.
A path to peace in a public school
The best part of all of my initial attempts at bringing Ayurveda to my students was something I could not have predicted. Since the creation of the wellness room, it is consistently being used as an intervention for students struggling with issues in the classroom. When students are tired from not getting enough sleep, if they are anxious, angry, or worked up, they can take a break there and regain the calm that they need to get through the day. I am frequently in the room guiding students in meditation and breathing these days, and doing the exercises myself as a result (an added bonus to my work day).
This is just the beginning of my journey in Ayurveda and bringing the wonderful tools that it offers to my students. I feel more empowered than ever before to bring practical and effective skills to the children I work with to help them get through their day. I am grateful to be able to share this wonderful, timeless wisdom with the people who need it most, our children.
Lisa Day-Lewis is an elementary school adjustment counselor in Massachusetts who is currently enrolled in the Ayurvedic Health Counselor Program at Hale Pule. She comes from the Bhakti Yoga tradition and has found Ayurveda to be an integral component to all aspects of her spiritual, home and professional lives. She plans to open an Ayurveda practice in her home in Storrs, CT, where she will offer Ayurveda counseling and education services for the whole family.