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Lehigh Valley program brings time-tested mindfulness techniques to students

Julian Abraham
Georgia Bomgardner as she gave a talk at a Bethlehem youth summit in November.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A nonprofit organization is helping young public school students throughout the Lehigh Valley learn "social-emotional resiliency through the practice of mindfulness."

What that means, said Georgia Bomgardner, a licensed psychologist and director of community education and engagement for The Shanthi Project, is "the idea of paying attention."

  • The Shanthi Project is a team of psychologists that teach mindfulness and meditation techniques to children and teens
  • These techniques are well-studied, and starting to gain acceptance in scientific communities, according to Shanthi's Director of Community Education and Engagement, Psychologist Georgia Bomgardner
  • The organization is based in the Lehigh Valley, and also offers seminars to workplaces

The Shanthi Project was founded in 2010 with programs based on clinical research of trauma’s impact on incarcerated youth populations.
According to its website, the organization in the 2021-22 school year reached 200 classrooms and 400 students in 19 schools within five Lehigh Valley-area school districts: Bethlehem Area, Easton, Nazareth Area, Northern Lehigh and Warren County, New Jersey. It says it also operated in eight after-school programs and 14 summer camps.

The Shanthi Project is made up of psychologists, specialists, and trained instructors. It says its efforts "address the social-emotional needs of all youth and adults with a demand for our services."

It uses yoga postures, breath awareness, understanding the brain, and "new tools to control strong emotions" to teach students learn coping skills, "plus the physical benefits of strength, balance and flexibility that a yoga practice can provide."

On the website, it says 93.8% of participating teachers at Allentown School District's Mosser Elementary School reported seeing an increase in "acts of kindness" after one eight-week mindfulness session.

An illustration

To illustrate the concept of "mindfulness," Bomgardner held her thumb and index finger up to the microphone (in a soundproof studio) and rubbed them together — as if making hand gesture that people sometimes do to illustrate "money."

She then took a series of deep breaths, and pace of the interview seemed to stop.

Through the microphone, it sounded similar to an hourglass being flipped over and the sand rushing through the glass — something to which you could listen as a soundtrack to fall asleep.

Her point: paying attention to small things — feelings your senses pick up throughout the day that you wouldn't normally notice, can have a calming effect, and help put things in perspective.

The idea of mindfulness is not just about rubbing fingers together, but many exercises and psychological techniques, that have real benefits — including during tough times.

Five-finger breathing

Another practice the Shanthi Project teaches to students (coincidentally also involving the hands) is called five-finger breathing.

The technique involves tracing the fingers on your hand, as a way to facilitate meditative breathing. Bomgardner said that while that's not necessarily "emergency psychiatry," it can be used during a panic attack.

She said the five-finger technique has become popular with students in the Lehigh Valley who have taken Shanthi Project's classes. Bomgardner even said she's aware of students teaching it to each other outside of the classroom.

She even said one student, while teaching it to a peer, joked about doing the technique instead with their toes — a touch of humor that apparently helped in an intense emotional situation between two kids.

Leaning beyond the edge

Some people giving mental health advice to children advise them to avoid things that make them uncomfortable or sad.

That's not always the case for Bomgardner and the Shanthi Project.

Bomgardner uses the analogy of a rollercoaster to explain.

"If we go to Dorney Park, to get on a roller coaster, I might stand in that line and start to feel my stress response," she said. "My heart rate goes up, I'm turning red in the face, my muscles are getting tight — I might just be ready to high-tail it and go get a snack or go on an easy ride or something."

But chances are, the roller coaster is totally safe, and it would be beneficial to ride it — because then you would have the bravery to face other obstacles in life, as long as you have the right approach and know it's safe.

On the other side, it could actually be harmful to "wimp out" right before the roller coaster ride, sending a signal to your brain that there is a legitimate threat by going on the ride, and intensifying the fear, in sort of a "snowball effect," Bomgardner said.

The organization also does visits to workplaces, in a program it calls Shanthi at Work.

More information about the Shanthi Project is available on their website.