The Differential Moderating Roles of Self-Compassion 
and Mindfulness in Self-Stigma and Well-Being Among People Living with Mental Illness or HIV (Yang et al. 2016)

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The Differential Moderating Roles of Self-Compassion 
and Mindfulness in Self-Stigma and Well-Being Among People Living with Mental Illness or HIV (Yang et al. 2016)

People living with mental and chronic illnesses often face forms of discrimination related to their conditions. Self-stigma is a phenomenon when negative stereotypes related to stigmatized identities are self-reinforced by those individuals with illnesses, which can often lead to feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and inadequacy. Self-stigmas cause undue stress on individuals and can also lead to decreased life satisfaction and well-being.

Current models of self-stigma propose that the phenomenon is comprised of two components, the content (negative thoughts) and the process (frequency and repetition of these thoughts). Mindfulness and self-compassion have been theorized to disrupt the maladaptive repetition of negative thoughts and emotions for patients with chronic or mental illnesses, who are particularly susceptible to psychosocial distress.

In this study, Yang and her team explored the potential moderating role of self-compassion and mindfulness to self-stigmas and well-being in two clinical samples from in Hong Kong, China. The first clinical sample comprised of 169 patients currently living with mental health disorders, ranging from schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder, in which 92% of the participants were actively using psychotropic medications as treatment. The second sample consists of 291 patients living with HIV; 87% of the participants were receiving anti-retroviral therapy at the time of the study.

All participants were issued a series of questionnaires comprised of five scales that assessed for mindfulness (FFMQ), self-compassion (SCS-SF), the content of self-stigmas (SSS- cognitive subscale), the frequency and repetition of self-stigmas (STARS), and life satisfaction (SLS).

Interestingly, the results indicated that mindfulness and self-compassion were positively associated with life satisfaction. In other words, patients who viewed themselves as more mindful and self-compassionate also tended to report a higher sense of life satisfaction. Conversely, those who scored higher on self-stigmatizing content and frequency of these negative thoughts were more likely to score lower on life-satisfaction, indicating a negative correlation.

“Interestingly, the results indicated that mindfulness and self-compassion were positively associated with life satisfaction.”

Yang and her team confirmed their hypothesis that the moderating effects of mindfulness and self-compassion were group specific. For the clinical sample with mental health issues, mindfulness in particular buffered against the negative association between the frequency of self-stigmas and well-being. However, for the sample of participants with HIV, results indicated that the content of their self-stigma was significantly related to subjective well-being and that self-compassion specifically moderated this relationship.

These results, although only correlational, provide an intriguing line of investigation that invites a closer examination of the group-specific moderating effects of mindfulness and self-compassion on self-stigma. Furthermore, the study authors suggest an experimental design to establish the causal relationship between mindfulness, self-compassion, and self-stigma. With the ever-expanding application of mindfulness-based interventions for various clinical populations, there seems to be ripe opportunity for the development of interventions or the integration of components that specifically target self-stigma in clinical population to increase well-being and life satisfaction.

Interview with Dr. Helen Weng

Helen Y. Weng, PhD is a postdoctoral scholar at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Helen is interested in how contemplative practices can improve communication within and between individuals, and how this in turn improves psychological and physical health. Her postdoctoral work is focused on developing a novel fMRI task to measure mindful breath awareness, using community-engaged approaches to adapt fMRI study procedures to underrepresented populations from diverse contemplative communities, and understanding how mindfulness-based interventions impact body awareness and psychophysiological variables.

How did you first become interested in compassion and mindfulness?

Starting in high school, I started reading books about psychology, Buddhist philosophy, and emotional intelligence. Luckily my dad recognized that interest and he gave me books. It was in high school when I read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, and Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. My interest came from the struggles I had growing up as one of the only racial minorities in my town, and from the cross-cultural clashes I had with my parents who are Taiwanese immigrants. I wanted to find a form of healing and relief from pain which I’m learning many people share.

I started to realize there were internal characteristics that can ground us in our values and what we care about. For example, compassion could become a value in responding to others’ suffering with kindness. In one of the books, I learned about compassion and it stated that compassion could be developed through meditation. The book also included instructions for compassion meditation that you could practice. I was 15 years old in my bedroom practicing compassion meditation and realized how hard it really was. It grounded me and helped give me a value that could guide me.

It became a deep personal value of mine. I reflected on compassion and tried to express it in my life. In college I ended up majoring in neuroscience and I knew I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. As one expression of compassion, I wanted to see how I could help people with mental health issues. I learned of Richie Davidson’s work where he studied the brain, emotion regulation, and was beginning to study compassion meditation. Our research interests were so well-aligned that it was clear that I should be his graduate student. I had to reach out to him.

I actually wrote about these experiences for my autobiographical essay when I was applying for clinical psychology internship. I recently shared this at the 2016 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute to give people an understanding of how my contemplative practice stems from my experience as a second-generation immigrant and racial minority in the United States, and how these experiences are feeding into my new work.

 You studied mindfulness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, arguably the epicenter of mindfulness research in the world. Could you tell us a bit about your experience working within that research network?

The Center for Healthy Minds  is very large now. There was never a dull moment. Our central aim was to apply the most rigorous science to meditation and well-being. We tried to use as many objective measures as we could, like brain imaging. I developed economic decision-making paradigms to measure the outcomes of compassion meditation. We wanted to develop measures of compassion where people were unaware of what we were measuring, and that measured observable quantifiable behavior. That was a very tricky scientific endeavor that we eventually figured out.

There is also a very public component of the Center where we really care about disseminating the information to the general public. We believe that everyone has the right to know how to expand their own potential for well-being. We have studied mindful attention, emotion regulation, empathy, and compassion. The question becomes how do we bring this information to the public once the science has been established. To this end, we provide newsletters, classes, and seminars to educate people according to the latest findings.

The Center has grown and they expanded their outreach to schools where they have conducted mindfulness and kindness-based trainings in schools. We released more resources that people can access. For instance, the compassion-based training that I used in my study was a 30-minute daily mediation that is freely available on our site. We showed that if you practice every day for 2 weeks for 30 minutes, it’s enough to increase your generosity to a stranger through the economic paradigms that we’ve created. It was also enough to change how their brains responded to suffering, showing increases in regions associated with empathy and emotion regulation. This is a major part of our mission: to learn these things and then bring them to the greater community.

 What is compassion and how do you develop it?

Compassion is the awareness of somebody’s suffering, and responding with a sense of caring and wanting to help. It can generate a feeling of warmth and connection, and also a desire to relieve that suffering. With compassion meditation, you envision different types of people suffering in your mind and then you practice a compassionate way of responding. So first you have to tune into somebody’s suffering, either emotional or physical. Then there is a desire to relieve that suffering. We think we’re training people to get better at this with practice. Not only does it change your internal state when you encounter somebody suffering, but we think that it also change actual behavior. It transforms an internal state into an external behavior. I think that contemplative practices can affect how we act, interact, and communicate to produce more well-being for ourselves and others.

You studied how compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. What were the results of this study and why is this important?

We found that compassion meditation training increases altruistic behavior and also how the brain responds to suffering. We came up with an economic behavioral paradigm called the Redistribution Game, which we developed from the behavioral economics literature. Working with my colleague Drew Fox, PhD, we developed a paradigm where the participants witness an unfair economic exchange between two people. They themselves have money, and if they choose to do so, they have the option to spend their own money and redistribute the unequal distribution of funds. The game was described in purely economic terms; they didn’t know we were trying to measure compassionate behavior. That money actually came out of their paychecks so it really meant something. It’s a model for altruism: spending one’s own money to promote equality. You can see how this model theoretically translates to other forms of inequality that we encounter every day.

We took members from the Madison, Wisconsin community who had no meditation experience. Twenty of them learned compassion meditation using a guided audio practice. In the compassion mediation group, they practiced envisioning different kinds of people suffering: first a loved one, themselves, a stranger, and then somebody they might find difficult. They have to imagine each person suffering then practice wishing them relief from their suffering. They repeat compassion-generating phrases such as “May you be free of suffering.” The compassion group did that every day for two weeks.

Twenty-one people in the control group learned cognitive reappraisal. Participants learned to think about situations in different ways to make them less stressful, essentially changing their thoughts to improve their feelings. We put both groups in the brain scanner before and after the two weeks in their respective courses to measure how their brains would respond to images of suffering. We showed them pictures of people in pain, both emotional and physical pain. Then we also showed them pictures of everyday neutral situations.

The compassion group had to evoke compassion for the people in the pictures, and the cognitive reappraisal group had to reinterpret the meaning of the pictures to decrease their negative feelings. What we found is that after only two weeks of practicing, the compassion group spent more money in the redistribution game to help out a stranger compared to the cognitive reappraisal group. This showed that just two weeks of practice was enough to change how the compassion group treated other people.

“This showed that just two weeks of practice was enough to change how the compassion group treated other people.”

We then learned how much a person was willing to spend was associated with how much their brains changed from the meditation. So people who showed a greater increase in the brain region involved with empathy, called the inferior parietal cortex, were also the ones who gave more to the stranger in the game. This links objective neurological responses to behavioral outcomes. Within this context, this data suggests that the way you perceive suffering is related to how you treat someone.

One of the implications is that compassion is not just something you’re born with. We all have a certain dispositional level of compassion. However, we can practice and get better at it. Using the parallel of practicing an instrument; the more you practice, the better you get. If you practice compassion, it might shift the meaning of what somebody else’s suffering means to you, which might change the way you treat people and could ultimately make you a more caring person.

“If you practice compassion, it might shift the meaning of what somebody else’s suffering means to you, which might change the way you treat people and could ultimately make you a more caring person.”

Is the heightened neurological activation seen in the brain permanent, or do effects weaken over time without continued compassion training?

We don’t have the data yet to know that. We would need more data that measure our participants over time. We do see differences in long-term meditators who practice compassion meditation. Those practitioners show more activation in regions associated with empathy like the insula. We would need some studies that follow people over time as they practice. I am curious to know how much you need to practice to maintain a stable level of compassion. As with most things, if you continue to practice, those skills become more stable.

How did you become involved with the Mind and Life Institute?

I read the books that they were publishing and was introduced to Richie Davidson’s work. I started going to the conferences at the Summer Research Institute, which invites scholars in the field from difference disciplines and encourages interdisciplinary discussion.

I applied to a Varela Award in 2006, offered by the Mind and Life Institute, to fund part of my compassion meditation study. I was fortunate to receive the award and they started to invite me to speak as a Varela awardee. Last year, I was awarded another Varela Award for my postdoctoral work to increase the racial and ethnic diversity within studies of contemplative neuroscience. At this year’s Summer Research Institute, they invited me to be a faculty member to speak on my new work, which was a great honor. My teams at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and the UCSF Neuroscape Center, directed by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, are collaborating with the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA.

In your latest talk at the Mind and Life’s Summer Research Institute, you delivered a proposal to include more diverse contemplative communities in your neuroscientific research paradigms. Why is this important?     

There is a larger cultural phenomenon in this country where the mindfulness field mainly consist of people in higher socioeconomic status and it tends to be more Caucasian practitioners.

I’m working with the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. They provide safe spaces for underrepresented populations to practice a variety of contemplative practices, and offers guidelines for members from different group identities to interact. They have groups for people of color, LGBT, people with disabilities, and those with chronic health conditions. We know that people from different group who are minorities encounter different stressors and meditation practice can really help with improving their sense of well-being and promote healthy emotional regulation.

Photo Credit: East Bay Meditation Center

I’m working with them to create community-engaged approaches, meaning that I get continuous feedback from people in their community as we’re conducting our latest neuroscience study. Using community engagement and dialogue, my Varela Award will help increase the diversity of meditators studied within contemplative neuroscience, including racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ population, and people with disabilities.

“The field is recognizing that mindfulness practice and research need to be accessible to many different type of people, particularly people who encounter more oppression, which is a type of suffering.”

The field is recognizing that mindfulness practice and research need to be accessible to many different type of people, particularly people who encounter more oppression, which is a type of suffering. There is so much potential for these types of practices to help minorities.

Could you tell us about your current study?

In the EMBODY study, I’m using a new fMRI methodology to study meditation. It uses machine learning or pattern recognition technology, which has been around for 15 years in the field, to identify mental states during meditation. This is in contrast to standard fMRI methods, which averages brain activity together within a person as well as across people. Because mental states during meditation are fluctuating and changing, and different people may have different patterns of brain activity, using pattern recognition approaches that are individualized to each person make more sense. The way my brain works during meditation doesn’t have to look the same as somebody else’s when they meditate. So we’re developing these methods to first study focused attention to the breath in order to see when people are paying attention to their breath or not, based on individualized brain data.

Presentation slide from Helen Weng, PhD, at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Since this methodology is more individualized to each person, it’s more conducive to including a greater diversity of people in these studies. There are a lot of biases and assumptions in neuroscience. These assumptions carry out when we analyze data. We assume that brains act similarly, to the extent that we actually average the activity, which means we exclude certain people’s brain activity who might be considered “abnormal.” For instance, we typically exclude left-handers, people with neurological disorders, people who have had head injuries, or mental health issues. We end up with a pool of people who don’t represent the greater population. Once we have methods that accounts for each person’s unique activity, we no longer need to have all those stringent study criteria.

I’m working with the East Bay Meditation Center to reexamine these assumptions. It comes down to who can lie still in the scanner for two hours comfortably and who can pay attention to their breath. That includes a lot of people. That’s the beauty of contemplative practice; it’s available to most people. I’m trying to infuse these principles of honoring diversity and inclusivity into the populations I study and how I study the brain.

You were recently invited to participate in a dialogue with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. What was that experience like?

International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photos Credit Fadel Zeidan, PhD

This was an amazing experience and such an honor! Institutions in Mongolia put together the first Science and Buddhism conference with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and reached out to the Mind and Life Institute for some scientist speakers. I was invited along with Fadel Zeidan, PhD as junior scientists to represent Mind and Life by the president Susan Bauer-Wu. This was a dream come true for both of us, observing dialogues with scientists and His Holiness since we were young graduate students, and now being invited to participate. Four Mongolian speakers also spoke on Buddhist ethics, Buddhism and quantum physics, and perspectives on biomedical advances such as stem cell research.

Presentation slide from Helen Weng, PhD, at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

I spoke about my new work with the EMBODY Task, showing how pattern recognition technology applied to brain data can actually identify when a meditator is paying attention to their breath or not. I also spoke about the collaboration with the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC) and working with diverse populations such as racial minorities and the LGBT population. His Holiness was particularly engaged when hearing about how EBMC cultivates a culture of understanding between different groups of people, particularly between groups who hold more power or less power. I was thanked by many Mongolian women after the talk, and I am excited to help represent Asian women in the sciences. The conference organizers expressed wanting to inspire young people in Mongolia to be involved in the intersection of Buddhism and Science, and the dialogue was broadcasted on Mongolian TV. I hope I contributed to that inspiration.

“I was thanked by many Mongolian women after the talk, and I am excited to help represent Asian women in the sciences.”

What has been the most exciting part of being a researcher of mindfulness-based interventions over the years?

I really like creating new things and understanding my own experiences. I’m working to make my science a part of my contemplative practice and become more vocal about this. My deepest wish is to become a more loving and compassionate person and have my life that truly reflects this. One way is through my work, as these are the topics I study. I approach life as a person who practices compassion through various means, sees how compassion may affect me and those around me, and then I channel that into my work. I process and examine my personal experiences, and then I design an experiment to test whether my understanding of them is right. It’s another form of practice.

The learning goes both ways, and I will change my understanding based on what my science says. I learned from my first compassion meditation study that when people witness an unfair transaction, the more they spend in the game is related to how compassionate they are. But if they witness a fair interaction, and they still spend their money on one person, they are actually punishing the other person. This illustrates how compassion is contextual. I had to learn to not to be helpful all the time, especially if someone acts poorly; that my decisions to care and help are based on the specific situation. This is one example of how my science feeds back into my own experience, and it creates a continuous dialogue and invites the scientific process as a part of this dialogue.

What does the future of the science hold? What more is there to learn? 

So much more! I am really interested in developing these machine learning methods to identify mental states during meditation. It’s really the wave of the future. One of the cool things that it can do is that it can get a count of how much somebody paid attention to their breath. We really don’t have that at this point in time. Using brain data, we can begin to quantify these processes.  I want to bring these methods to many kinds of meditation, and eventually use them to study loving-kindness and compassion meditation again.

I want to work on creating better brain-based measures of meditation that are specifically tailored to different types of meditation. A lot of the tasks that we use come from literature that already exists. But meditation is a very interesting, dynamic process. So we also need to design experiments to optimize measuring meditation differently, since there are so many types of meditation practice. If I had unlimited resources I would try to develop really good tasks to measure each type of mediation skill that people practice and learn. Then we would be able to determine which skills contribute to decreasing anxiety and depression, building relationships, and promoting compassionate behaviors. Also, there is the need to improve measures of the psychological and the behavioral effects of meditation. I think it’s all about measurement development. That will be a core of what I do.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you (related to your work) that you would like to share?

I’m also trained as a clinical psychologist and I’ve been a therapist for four years during my graduate training. I had to individualize therapy for each person, and different approaches worked for different people. For example, someone chose cognitive behavioral approaches (changing thoughts to change feelings) over mindfulness-based approaches to help with his anxiety. I would suggest that people should experiment. People need to look within themselves to understand what they enjoy and what seems to work with them. There seems to be a cultural thing that people assume that meditation will work for them or “should” work for them. I think people should try and take a class and then later reflect whether they will actually integrate that into their lives.

I think mindfulness and compassion skills have more of an effect if you do them consistently. The act of meditating is not for everyone. There could be a different way to access compassion or become present and centered. I would encourage people to reflect what helps them settle down, connect to themselves and others. It could be through a myriad of things, music, exercise, or having deep conversations. I do believe mindfulness and compassion can help all of those processes because it trains qualities of attention that should help in everything we do. It’s fine if meditation isn’t what helps someone best. I really encourage people to understand their own minds and processes.

“The act of meditating is not for everyone. There could be a different way to access compassion or become present and centered. I would encourage people to reflect what helps them settle down, connect to themselves and others.”

Participate in the EMBODY Study
Watch Helen’s presentation at the International Conference of Buddhism and Science. It starts at around 1:36:00. 

The Power of Their Own Breath


Hendrée Jones, PhD, a psychologist at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a drug addiction expert who works to help women and children with substance abuse issues across the world. She is the executive director of UNC Horizons.


By Mary Lide Parker

The Vitória Hotel in downtown Campinas, Brazil looks like any other high-class, modern establishment. Sunlight dances across the wide, turquoise pool. The white marble floor shines so brightly it almost looks reflective. Fresh, floral scents waft across the lobby.

Hendrée Jones, a psychologist who has traveled here from the United States, is standing in this swanky lobby, eyeing a large glass bowl of potpourri. She takes a few steps closer to examine the contents: brown star shapes with a sharp licorice scent and soft, fuzzy pine cones that smell like Christmas.

These will do. Jones scoops a few handfuls into a plastic bag.

“Don’t worry, I put it back later,” she says with a chuckle.

Jones pockets the baggy of potpourri and walks outside to hail a cab. After 45 minutes of winding through traffic, the cab drops Jones in a favela outside Campinas. Like so many impoverished areas of Brazil, the houses here are lit (sometimes) by illegal electricity while children run through the streets, zigzagging between enormous piles of trash.

Jones walks into the local drug treatment facility. She is here to manage a group therapy session for 35 children ranging in age from seven to 17. They sit in rows, classroom style.

Hendrée Jones travels all over the world – from Brazil to Afghanistan to India – to provide treatment to mothers and children suffering from substance use disorders. Picture links to original article.

These are not your average underprivileged kids—they have been used and abused by local drug lords. Some of these children started using drugs at age six. Some of them were handed guns at age seven. They are tough to the core yet they exist in a constant state of fear. Many of them are orphans and live on the street.

“What do you give to someone who has nothing?” Jones asks. “No home, no family, no purpose in life?”


“The power of their own breath.”

Today she’ll be teaching this group mindfulness exercises.

“We focus on concentration,” Jones says. “So rather than sharpening your focus, which is what happens when you get anxious, the goal is to relax your focus.” The ability to utilize your breath to calm your nervous system is the first step to teaching mindfulness.

She slowly walks around the room and asks everyone, if they feel comfortable, to close their eyes. If they don’t feel comfortable closing their eyes, they can look down towards the floor with a soft gaze. Then she places a small object in their hands—this is where the borrowed potpourri comes in. The children wrap their fingers around the small shapes. Jones begins by asking simple questions: Is the object rough or smooth? Is it heavy or light? What does it smell like?

“They’re not answering outwardly,” Jones says. “We’re creating an inward dialogue designed to help them watch their own thoughts.” By asking them about all the different aspects of this object, Jones can focus their racing minds on something simple and peaceful.

For another exercise, Jones stands in front of the group, stretches her arms over her head, and starts rapidly tapping her own head.

“I put my hands on my head and make fast, quick motions to illustrate how we live in high vibrations of anxiety,” she explains. In the violent and unpredictable environments these children inhabit, stress and fear are constants. Racing thoughts, shallow breaths, and rapid heart rate are all signs of being prepared for a threat.

Jones slowly lowers her arms down to her sides to symbolize the act of mentally and physically slowing down.

“When we bring these kids into a treatment center, we work on physical safety as well as emotional safety,” she says. Without fearing for their physical safety, their heart rate lowers, and their breathing slows.

The breathing techniques focus on the repetition of inhales and exhales. The rhythmic sense of specific patterns helps slow everything down, which helps to calm the central nervous system.

The breathing techniques focus on the repetition of inhales and exhales. The rhythmic sense of specific patterns helps slow everything down, which helps to calm the central nervous system.

“Fully using your lungs gets more oxygen to your brain and helps you think more clearly,” Jones says. “They can allow their thoughts to move in a more detached way, which helps them make better decisions.”

The breathing exercises are tailored to what the children can tolerate. “They’re scared,” Jones says. “They’re used to surveying for threats, and they’re typically not able to pay attention to anything for long.” Knowing that their attention spans and patience are limited, she starts the session off with a couple of easy belly breathing exercises.

To demonstrate, Jones lies down on the floor and places a small object, like a stuffed animal, on her stomach. As she breathes, the stuffed animal moves up and down. The children watch, and then imitate the exercise.

Another exercise creates a rhythmic breathing pattern through counting—breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of seven, and then breathe out for a count of eight. “That’s not one we would start with,” Jones says. “It takes a little more concentration, and a lot of times kids don’t have the patience for that—so we build up to it.”

In all her years of working with people who have been using drugs—both children and adults—Jones says the inability to feel is a constant. “They have a hard time feeling happy, and they have a hard time feeling sorrow,” she says. “They have great fear for feeling any type of emotion because when you take drugs, you numb everything—you can’t selectively numb out the sad or bad emotions, you numb out everything—the happiness as well as the sadness.”

“You have to learn how to be uncomfortable, and sit with it. The more you can do that, the better off you are.” 

And that’s what the breathing exercises and slowing the pace of the mind is all about. Learning how to sit with emotions, even those that are painful, and learning how to separate from them. As we so often hear in mindfulness trainings, the ability to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting automatically is a crucial skill.

“You have to learn how to be uncomfortable, and sit with it,” Jones says. “The more you can do that, the better off you are.” 

Mary Lide Parker is a science writer, photographer and videographer at UNC Research. She covers a variety of stories, including scientific discovery, social justice, artistic expression, and human health. 

Mind & Life Institute: International Symposium for Contemplative Studies 2016- Highlights and Review


By Michael Juberg

“How do we create science that resonates with the rest of the world?”– Rhonda Magee, JD, MA

Perhaps it’s fitting that a question so unapologetically interpretable was proposed to a diverse audience consisting of neuroscientists, educators, clinicians, artists, and religious practitioners. Those in attendance- from the quiet neuroscientists, to the monks in saffron robes- were drawn by the promise of the rich interdisciplinary dialogue that the Mind & Life Institute guarantees through its International Symposium for Contemplative Studies in San Diego, California. This highly anticipated conference held every other year explores the intersection of applied and basic sciences and contemplative practices through a series of lectures, contemplative workshops, and poster presentations.

Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, discussing his presentation

It became apparent quickly that mindfulness, the practiced quality of creating attentive, intentional, and non-judgmental awareness, was a science unto itself for the various communities and disciplines that rigorously investigate it. Both the beauty and the challenge of the symposium was creating dialogue that allowed input from the scientists and practitioners alike. Presenter panels consisting of Harvard researchers and Zen priests presented on issues ranging from the clinical application of mindfulness for relapse prevention to the societal effects of individual mindfulness practices.

There was a constant in this conference: a mission to combine the wisdom, experiences, and studies from these various masters of the mind to capture a truth that was partly evidence-based and partly spiritual. Together, these various presenters converged on the potential and the challenges of creating a science that could effect meaningful change in the world in any context. Recovering from an Election Day sting, a Zen priest called to question the role of mindfulness to heal new forms of suffering, ones that are neither addressed in the Buddhist canons nor clinical handbooks.

Rhonda Magee, University of San Francisco Law Professor, asked quite simply, ‘Who is suffering now?’ in her presentation titled “Moving Together from Colorblindness to Colorsight: Contemplative Inquiry, Research, and Practice in the work of Transformative Justice.” She challenged us to see that suffering was not only symptomatic of clinical populations, but rather was innate to the human condition in multiple aspects of our everyday lives.

University of San Francisco Professor Rhonda Magee presenting a keynote speech

She masterfully weaved results from previous studies showing how mindfulness reduces the impact of stereotype threat, age, and racial biases into an imperative to use contemplative science to inspire social justice within institutions and in the people who constitute them. Timely to say the least.

She challenged us to see that suffering was not only symptomatic of clinical populations, but rather was innate to the human condition in multiple aspects of our everyday lives.

Rhonda Magee’s presentation created a call to action for a crowd deeply affected by the results of the presidential election: use mindfulness as a tool to recognize diversity and to develop practices that reduce the impact of racism, bigotry, misogyny, and interpersonal suffering. Her inspiring words admonished that now is the time to realize the multi-faceted nature of mindfulness and how it can affect humanity on personal, clinical, communal, and especially societal levels. People straightened up in their chairs; she had their attention.

Outside the auditorium you could see the sun slowly fading below San Diego’s harbor, painting the sky a cotton-candy pink. This impassioned community embraced the transition at the end of the day. With a new sunrise, they knew there would be more opportunity to enact positive change through their lives’ work.





Interview with Dr. Ilana Nankin- Breathe For Change

Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Breathe For Change

Ilana Nankin, Ph.D., is a teacher educator, change agent, and former pre-k teacher who has committed her life to creating a more socially just world for children, teachers, and communities. After receiving her B.A. in Psychology and Education and facilitating education courses at University of California- Berkeley, Ilana became a Pre-K teacher, early childhood education instructional coach, and non-profit leader in San Francisco. Determined to bring the essential voices of teachers to the forefront of education, Ilana left the Bay Area in 2012 to pursue a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she now teaches, supervises, and mentors early childhood and elementary pre-service teachers, conducts educational research, serves in various leadership roles across campus, and teaches yoga. 

Photo Credit: Breathe For Change

Can you tell us about Breath For Change?

Breathe for Change is a movement that aims to empower educators to transform themselves, their relationships, and their communities in order to create a more socially just and peaceful world. We offer the world’s only 200-hour wellness and yoga training that is specifically designed for educators.

Why did you start Breathe for Change?

Dr. Ilana Nankin teaching students about mindful movements

As a former Pre-K teacher in San Francisco, I was incredibly stressed. I found yoga and mindfulness and it completely transformed my teaching and my personal life. I started using the practices in my own classroom and saw transformational outcomes both social-emotionally and academically for my students. I came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue my Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction. Through my research and teaching, it became clear that teacher stress and burnout is a universal concern and that our teachers don’t necessarily have the means to take care of themselves as they support their students. I realized I had to do something about this. My vision was to prioritize teacher well-being in the education system by giving them tools to deal with the stresses that they face everyday.

I completed a yoga training the year before and it was truly transformational as a teacher. I wanted to share this experience with other educators and I had the idea to start the world’s first 200-hour wellness and yoga teacher training. We designed it specifically for educators to give them skills to integrate mindfulness and yoga into their lives, build communities, and affect school-wide transformation.

Michael Fenchel, who was a successful entrepreneur, was inspired and wanted to help formalize this into a business. We came together in 2016 to pilot ten school-wide wellness programs that were premised on three thematic workshops: transformation of self, relationships, and community. Our graduates taught weekly wellness classes that were a mixture of community-building activities, mindfulness, and yoga. We also created content that teachers could use to take care of themselves, social-emotional strategies for students, and a vision of well-being that leaders could integrate into their larger vision of education. What we witness was a ripple effect within a few months of that initial training; we had such a positive response that people were actively introducing these strategies in their schools.

What are the basic tenets of the curriculum?

Photo Credit: Breathe For Change
Photo Credit: Breathe For Change

When I was a Pre-K teacher, a student raised his hand in our community circle and said, “In a community, first you have to love yourself, because if you don’t love yourself, then you can’t love anybody else.” When we broke it down, this young student’s words were truly the inspiration behind our curriculum. The whole transformation progression is grounded in this idea that in order to take care of others, we have to first take care of ourselves. Accordingly, our curriculum incorporates a wide range of wellness techniques based in yoga and mindfulness that promotes the transformation of self, relationships, and communities. What makes our yoga training unique is the emphasis that we place on developing relationships within our school communities.

“In a community, first you have to love yourself, because if you don’t love yourself, then you can’t love anybody else.”

It the curriculum geared toward any level of educator?

Our 200-hour training is for any educator involved with Pre-K through 12th grade. We differentiate our social-emotional learning strategies so that teachers within the same grade levels are working with each other when we do peer mentorship groups. This gives teachers the opportunity to connect and share resources with colleagues sharing similar experiences. Breathe For Change is relevant for a diverse range of individuals working within schools, including educators, principals, school social workers, and college professors. We believe that having a diversity of perspectives and experiences strengthens everyone’s experience within the community.

Is the program designed for schools or individual teachers?

Initially, we designed it for individual educators. However, we see a trend unfolding; when we first launch in a new city, we primarily recruit educators, they take it back to their schools, and then the districts take note and begin to get excited about this. This potential link is really exciting because if whole districts get on board, then we’re better able to enact systemic change.

The first training we piloted was in the Madison school district. This introduced Breathe For Change with the district and so that created a formal partnership with the entire Madison Metropolitan School District. That gave more schools and teachers the opportunity to get on board.

Anything is possible when an entire leadership sees benefit in this vision. We’re going in that direction, but for now we market to educators and principals to forward to their educators. Principals can recognize that if they can have even one educator participate, those educators can implement a wellness program into their schools.

Teachers in training. Photo Credit: Breathe For Change

How do you measure the impact it has on children and teachers?

Last year I worked in partnership with the University of Wisconsin, Madison and received approval to conduct a research study to test how our training impacted the lives of our graduates and their educational communities. What we found was that 100% of these teachers said that Breathe for Change significantly reduced their stress levels and enhanced their well-being. We also found that all of the schools that have wellness programs reported increased collaboration among staff and feel a deeper sense of community. The teachers have also self-reported gains and enhancement in the social-emotional and academic outcomes of their students.

“What we found was that 100% of these teachers said that Breathe for Change significantly reduced their stress levels and enhanced their well-being.”

Through my dissertation, which focused on the training experience of eight teachers, I found a correlation between students’ social-emotional learning and their academic performance. I think that correlation is expected, but not necessarily prioritized in our educational system. If we are taking care of our kids’ social-emotional needs, then their academic performance is going to subsequently improve. Instead of focusing on the literacy and math scores, we should shift our focus to the underlying issues that the children are facing. If we give them the tools and supports to enhance their social-emotional development, then ultimately that will have a direct and lasting impact on their lives.

One of the participating schools noticed the impact of Breathe For Change on the rate of students’ behavioral incidents. This is a school where every teacher participated in the program. They found that the rate of behavioral incidents decreased by more than half from the year before. Instead of detention, they practiced non-violent communication among other strategies that we taught their teachers.

The other thing that we found was the results from the surveys we gave to 150 teachers who completed the teacher training. We did a pre-survey, at the end of each segment, as well as a post-survey. What we found was that the Net Promoter Score (NPS), assessing whether the program participant would refer this to colleagues, we received a 100% score. This means that every teacher says that they would recommend this training based on the value that it brought them.

“They found that the rate of behavioral incidents decreased by more than half from the year before. Instead of detention, they practiced non-violent communication among other strategies that we taught their teachers.”

When you mention building community, is that designed for children or teachers?

I would say both, but it starts with an emphasis on the teachers. In our trainings, we create a space that allows teachers to be vulnerable. They are encouraged to express themselves fully in a trusted community of peers. Most teachers haven’t necessarily experienced that before. Those who graduate our training cultivate a support network that they can readily access anytime after. The community starts at the training, but there is a ripple effect. They first learn how to build communities and later they share these techniques with their colleagues. For instance, some teachers start everyday with breathing exercises with the rest of their staff.

All of the social-emotional skills we teach not only enhance the individual student’s emotional regulation capacity, but also teach them how to cherish community. We show students how to connect with our fellow peers, appreciate, and become present for one another. We’re discovering that this is possible with any student age four and up. We’re giving students a toolset to infuse these skills in any area of their lives.

Have you faced any resistance?

Actually, I have been shocked with how little resistance we’ve had. For some people, mindfulness and yoga carry stereotypes, mainly that it’s religious-based. We recognize that the language that we use is important. Terms like ‘yoga’ aren’t used in our program. We’re cognizant of this even though the scientific research supports the benefits of yoga and mindfulness. My whole intention is to circumvent these potential resistances. We teach teachers how to reframe what we’re doing using very universally accepted vocabulary. For example, we tell our teachers not to use the term ‘yoga’ in their schools, but instead ‘mindful movement’. The action of teaching ‘yoga’ or ‘mindful movement’ is the same, but the implications are very different. Outside of a school setting, educators can choose the term that most appropriate. But within a school, we use these universal terms with sensitivity to the resistance that we could face.

We also have found some resistance working with large districts where there is more bureaucracy, legalities, and rules. They might have existing initiatives that they have been working on for years. It can be challenging to introduce new programs on a systemic level. That’s why we focus on teachers first. No policy is going to prevent a teacher from introducing community building into their staff meeting or classroom. It’s happening even with some of these systemic barriers in place. I think that in time as we train more teachers and develop more leaders in our schools, policies will hopefully start to change. We might see superintendents instead of teachers introducing Breathe For Change to their entire district. In time it will grow when everybody sees its intrinsic value.

Where would you like this to be in ten years?

In ten years I would like to see Breathe For Change in every single school in our country. I believe it’s paramount that our education system recognizes the value of teacher well-being. We hope to see complete shifts in our education system with a deeper focus on social-emotional learning and teaching. I see Breathe For Change as a movement that is creating educators with agency to change the world. I want see the world as a happier and healthier place and by giving educators the ability to transform communities, starting with themselves. That’s the key to world transformation. It would be my dream to have everyone know what Breathe For Change is and see the real effects it has on individuals, if not systems. I want to see injustice and disparities in schools conquered. I think that the missing link is social-emotional development and wellness and I want to see that prioritized.

Breathe For Change
Photo Credit: Breathe For Change

Interested in participating in Breathe For Change Spring training?

Graduates will receive the official Yoga Alliance 200-hour certification, as well as be certified as Breathe For Change Wellness Champions, qualifying to lead wellness programs at their schools. Learn more about the program here and let them know that you read about them here at the