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The room is filled with the cacophony of restless ten- to fifteen-year-old children. All share one common bond: the chaos and stress in their lives that’s a result of their growing up in low-income families. Some are homeless. Others live in apartments crammed with relatives sharing space due to the city’s high rent costs. A few have mothers in flight from abusive partners.
The kids begin unrolling yoga mats as Bart van Melik taps a Tibetan “singing bowl” with a small mallet. With the steadily fading chime, the children suddenly grow quiet.
Van Melik is an instructor for the Lineage Project, a nonprofit that uses meditation, mindfulness, and yoga to help at-risk young people cope with living in communities rife with poverty and violence. It’s part of an after-school program held at the Prospect Family Shelter in the South Bronx. The shelter is operated by Homes for the Homeless, a social services provider, which is able to fund participation in the Lineage Project through generosity provided by a board member.
A few of the children who participate in the program live in the shelter, others in the surrounding community. Van Melik, who has been with the Lineage Project for over six years, says he’s become very familiar with what he calls the “intergenerational suffering” that often plagues urban communities.
“Some of the kids have seen violence,” he says. “Some are homeless. Or they tell me they share a small apartment with a lot of family members and don’t have their own rooms.” The program, he says, teaches the kids “how to relax, find peace within themselves, learn how to focus, and eventually cope differently to the intense stress they’re facing.”
The program aims to support children who are homeless or come from unstable environments and is the only after-school initiative of its kind to receive state funding. The children meet for one day each week for an hour to discuss a topic of the instructor’s choosing — universal themes like “gratitude” and “dishonesty.” After the discussion, van Melik leads the group in a yoga routine before ending with a meditation session. On this Friday afternoon, van Melik has chosen “trust” as the day’s theme.
“Is there somebody in your life you trust 100 percent?” he asks, handing the Tibetan singing bowl to one of the kids. Each child is asked to ring the bowl after answering the question.
Justin, who is ten, says it’s his best friend. Luis, eleven, says two of his friends, “but only 50 percent of the time.”
Next up is another ten-year-old.
“My name is Jennifer,” she says, “and there’s nobody I can trust.”
“Why?” asks van Melik.
“If I tell secrets to my friends, they’ll spread it around. And if I try to talk to my mom sometimes, she just won’t listen,” she replies.
Jennifer doesn’t stay in the shelter, but she describes her cramped living situation with her mother, four sisters, and a brother in a small apartment. There are arguments over “who gets to take the first bath…we’re always arguing about that.” She says she often feels overwhelmed and yearns for space and silence.
“Sometimes I just want to be by myself and think about myself with nobody else around. When I try to do this at home, there’s all this noise. Everyone is always fighting with each other. There’s no quiet space.”
There is in this room. “I never get to feel this quiet. It helps me,” she says. Others echo her sentiment, saying they’re more relaxed, less angry, and better able to handle stress thanks to the class.
This may be due, in part, to a benefit linked to mindfulness-based stress reduction: It changes the amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of the brain, reducing stress levels. Learning to be present is also shown to help with emotion regulation and enhanced attention.
Van Melik is teaching the class to do just that. After guiding the children through discussion, he demonstrates yoga poses.
“Now we’re ready for Cobra,” he says. “Push your upper body a little bit and see if you can feel a stretch in your lower back. See if you can do this in silence.”
The children follow his lead, rolling onto their stomachs and extending into the snakelike pose.
“You’re doing really well,” van Melik says. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “Inhale up. Exhale down.”
The room is quiet and peaceful. Then there’s the sudden intrusion of police sirens outside, a reminder that the city’s problems remain close at hand.
While many sing its praises, some scholars are critical of mindfulness. Dr. Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, has investigated adverse effects from meditation and documented them in “The Dark Night Project,” which contends that contemplative practices can cause bewildering and, sometimes, traumatic experiences.
Van Melik dismisses these “naysayers.” As he puts it, “Who wouldn’t want to have young people exposed to ways they can increase concentration and learn how to relax in order to have peace?”
Some of the children cope with their lives by making light of their situation. “I never get stressed. Or mad or sad. Or angry. I feel happy all the time,” says Syleena, eleven, who lives in the shelter with her mother — she has siblings who live elsewhere in the city.
But Justin says he’s always had anger issues. He’s been at the shelter since 2014 and explains that he used to get frustrated when he tried to draw and couldn’t get the results he wanted. The program has taught him how to move on from his mistakes. “I used to get mad,” he says. “Now I just get calm and let go. If I do a little mistake, it’s just a mistake — it’s not the end of the world. So now I draw better.”
As he spoke, he pulled out some of his drawings, pictures of ninjas that look like Legos, characters from the Ninjago series.
Van Melik gets to the third part of the hour: He asks the children to close their eyes and invites them to focus on objects of mindfulness.
“Pay attention to your breath,” he says as the kids lie on their yoga mats. “Do you trust your body breathing? Do you trust your mindfulness? Do you feel calm? Restless? Sleepy? Energized? However you’re feeling right now — it’s like this — you’re mindful of your mood.”
He rings the bell once. And then again. On the third ring, it signals the end of the session. The bell reverberates.
“Slowly give yourself a stretch as if you’ve woken up from a peaceful rest,” says van Melik.
As the children roll up their mats, Jennifer says, “I wish this could be every day.”
When asked if she tries to meditate on her own at home, Jennifer contemplates the question.
“I lie down on my bed and I try not to think of anything. I try to find the quiet place. It makes me feel relaxed and calm and confident. It changes me.”