ScandAsia had the pleasure of sitting down with Mindfulness expert Ms. Gift Nisanart Dharmakeisirattana. Ms. Gift serves as the Co-chair of Communications and Development for the International Schools Association of Thailand (ISAT) and is a pioneer in Asia for implementing Mindfulness into a school’s curriculum. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Film and Television from New York University (1998) and her Master’s Degree in Education Administration in Public Education from Teachers College, Columbia University (2013). Ms. Gift has been trained in various mindfulness disciplines at Yale University and Columbia University as well as in France and the United Kingdom. Among her trainees are the staff at the multi-billion dollar enterprise Amata Nakorn, and doctorate students from Thammasat University.
Q: Could you tell us about how you initially became involved in education?
A: I come from a long line of educators. It began with my great grandfather, who helped start the education system in Thailand. My grandfather, aunt and mother all started school businesses including a university, vocational schools, and primary and secondary education. I feel my experience growing up in a family of educators has been very valuable because throughout my life I have seen how education can transform lives. We don’t only teach academic content but also how to be a kind, caring human being.
Q: How you did come up with the idea of incorporating Mindfulness into an international school curriculum?
A: Incorporating mindfulness into classrooms may not be the typical curriculum of an international school. However, meditation and mindful thinking can really do wonders for our young people. It not only helps quiet your mind and balance emotions, but it also helps you train your attention. Being in control of these factors is a benefit to anyone at any age, but to have the opportunity to open your mind and grow your emotional intelligence from a young age is truly an invaluable life skill. If children can better regulate their emotions, be more empathetic towards others, and have the ability to think more deeply, their life prospects and general happiness will grow exponentially. We all have this capacity within us, mindfulness in the classroom helps to better shape the minds of our children to think differently and more positively about themselves and the world around them.
Q: How can teachers implement mindfulness to help their students?
Well, before doing anything, a teacher needs to a consistent practice for themselves. They should select a mindful technique that suits them, and practice their technique consistently. As time passes they will experience a positive transformation in themselves. This will enable teachers to use the skills they have learned to help their students and assist their colleagues.
Q: How can people use mindfulness for self-improvement?
A: There is an abundance of research that proves the effectiveness of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness helps reduce stress, increases one’s attention span, strengthens the immune system, and improves overall health. If you would like to improve in a particular area, there are specific techniques that can used, but that depends on each specific case. Remember that Thailand has one of the oldest mindfulness traditions in the world, dating back thousands of years. If an individual wants to work on self-improvement and is new to mindfulness, the best thing to do is seek out a mindfulness teacher and start experimenting with different techniques.
Q: How can a student use Mindfulness to improve their focus?
They can start by practicing simple mindful breathing for 5 minutes a day, either when they wake up or before they go to sleep. It’s their choice. Students should pay attention to their in-breath and out-breath. They need to be aware of thoughts that may creep into their heads, but with time, and constant practice, they will begin to see thoughts subside naturally and they will start to enjoy the beauty of calmness and relaxation through breathing.
Q: If Mindful practices are new to someone and they are excited to learn more about it, what should they do?
That person can simply let their curiosity carry them and start experimenting with mindfulness techniques that appeal to them. There are so many resources available, from information online to books and meditation groups. The number of people interested in mindfulness is quickly growing and in the future I hope that it is a mainstream concept.
Q: How is Mindfulness similar to Yoga?
Well, it is important to recognize that whether mindfulness is similar to yoga ultimately depends on your state of mind when practicing. In its purest form, yoga is about cultivating a positive relationship between the body and the mind. It is about learning to be aware of your present moment experience, as your body moves through each yoga pose. If yoga is done with mindful awareness of the movements, or with positive intentions, then it can be said to be mindful. This is true for all forms of movement, whether it is playing basketball, painting, doing the dishes, or even going for a walk. Each one of these activities is a great place to practice mindfulness. All you have to do is remain in the present moment, feeling the sensations of the movements as you do them. In this way, every activity in your life can become a place for positive transformation and increased sense of calm and well-being.
Q: Why should a school choose to teach mindfulness as opposed to teaching respect, character, integrity etc…?
The primary reason is because mindfulness, when practiced correctly, holds the key to internal transformation so it teaches the essence of respect, character, integrity and so forth. Most anti-bullying and character building programs just talk about these concepts but mindfulness actually builds the persona that embodies these qualities. It’s important to remember that there are different forms of mental training in mindfulness. For example, there is emotional intelligence training where individuals must be aware of their emotions and practice regulation techniques. There is also training for concentration and focus that involves breathing. Visualization training is also another technique that is commonly taught in professional sports.
Q: How can mindfulness help improve a teacher’s instruction?
Well, research consistently shows that mindfulness helps students focus and pay attention so having well-behaved students will certainly help teachers in their classrooms. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase patience, and decrease hostility and reactivity. For teachers, it is important to be a positive role model for their students. Being able to remain calm and patient in the face of difficult classroom situations helps them to become a more effective teacher and leader. Additionally, mindfulness reduces stress, and it is easy to see how less stress will lead to an improvement in teaching.
Q: Does mindfulness involve the practice of staying present?
Mindfulness practice has three core components: paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgement. Each aspect of this definition is important for correctly practicing mindfulness. If you are not staying in the present moment, it means you are either thinking about the past or the future. Often we use the breath as an anchor to guide us back to the present moment and help us stay there. If you are doing a mindfulness practice, and your mind begins to wander into the past or future, simply return your attention to the breath, as a way of coming back into your present moment experience.