Teaching Mindfulness to At-risk Youth


I was in Latin America working for Our Little Brothers and Sisters, supporting children who had been orphaned and abandoned. I was mostly based in the Dominican Republic and when the Haiti earthquake happened in 2010, we supported the earthquake relief effort. I got very stressed out and started teaching yoga and mindfulness to the kids I was working with.

Back in Auckland, I set up The Kindness Institute in response to our youth mental health crisis. Everyone says to me, ‘How the heck do you get teens to give up their Saturday mornings to meditate and do yoga?’ It's been great. Kids who have really difficult lives and come from an environment where it is really tough to even get to class, their dedication to this kaupapa is so inspiring.

Part of it is that they give themselves permission to relax and feel safe; mindfulness works. When you find something that is all about connecting with yourself and developing kindness for yourself, it feels really good. It is not rocket science, we are providing really simple tools.

I was a major sceptic, so I get it. The rangatahi and tamariki are more open than a lot of adults I have worked with. For the youth, learning how to be still is the challenging part. I think it's so brilliant that they're taking it seriously and learning the tools we all missed out on.

In four years we’ve worked with over 700 kids. Atawhai is an intensive programme that works with seven to 10 rangatahi for between one and three years. It is creating these amazing advocates for mindfulness. As well as changing their lives, they go out and teach whanau, friends and schoolmates. Some of the kids teach regular classes before school every week.

One of our previous students was very anxious and overwhelmed at an all-boys school where he wasn't supported to talk about his feelings and problems and he began to self-harm. He came onto our programme and then taught his family yoga and now they all practise every day.

Our rangatahi are learning how to forgive themselves, how to forgive others, how to trust and how to communicate mindfully.

Wāti, 18

I have been doing the Atawhai programme for close to a year now with Kristina. I was recommended by my principal to come on the programme. I go to Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi Marae. We’re a fully immersed Māori school, we were the first in the country. It’s a really cool school to go to. It is very much like The Kindness Institute, where we are all whanau and we do everything together.

[For Atawhai] we go to beautiful places to really feel grounded in who we are and what we are about. We are about rangatahi being given a brighter future. We learn how to breathe and how to be present. We learn to deal with difficult situations that we thought we could never overcome; with those tools and skills we have overcome those sticky situations.

For example, we had our NCEA exams and I was feeling overwhelmed going into the exam because there were three papers. The exam is four hours, so for the first 45 minutes I just sat still, and I closed my eyes and was present with how I was feeling about the test. I wondered how I would feel about finishing the test; I would feel relieved. I thought to myself, how do I want to feel during the test; I want to feel free in my thoughts. I didn’t want to get too caught up in other things than just being present with the test.

This programme has given me a lot of confidence. It’s given me a lot I never thought I had in me, like leading. Every Wednesday at my school, I teach yoga in the morning. The teaching felt very natural after being on this programme, because I was given so many opportunities to lead a class and I felt like I was giving back to Atawhai. I was receiving skills and tools that would help me, and I was giving more of a Māori feel to the kaupapa. I definitely know that Atawhai will be in my future.