Students rolled out yoga mats and meditation cushions in a cleared space on the darkened auditorium stage. Deborah DeBetta, a phys. ed. teacher at Lynbrook High School, said they had set up a cushion for me.
I kicked off my shoes and sat on the floor with about 20 students, and DeBetta rang a bell to signify the start of the meditation practice. She told us to close our eyes and focus on our breath, rising and falling. As thoughts popped up, DeBetta said, we were to acknowledge them and then return our attention to breathing in and out.
This process, of anchoring your attention to the involuntary process of breathing, is known as mindfulness meditation — a secular philosophy adapted from ancient Buddhist traditions.
DeBetta, who is also a certified yoga instructor, decided to bring the practice to school after she began taking classes at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. “It’s science, it’s not religion,” she said, adding that there is research to substantiate the medical benefits of mindfulness.
Indeed, research by neuropsychologists and medical professionals recognizes that meditation can reduce stress, boost creativity and increase focus. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and a writer, introduced mindfulness to mainstream medicine when he developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the UMass Medical Center in 1979, using exercises to help patients dealing with chronic pain.
DeBetta studied under Kabat-Zinn in 2014, taking a seven-day professional course called Mind-Body Medicine within the MBSR program. She is still working toward her MBSR certification, which requires three years of meditation retreats, research and teaching. She also holds seminars to educate other Nassau County teachers about mindfulness in schools.
She smiled when she described a moment at UMass, among psychologists and doctors, when Kabat-Zinn singled her out to tell her she had “the most important job to do.” She said she was honored to be able to study under him, and described him as “brilliant.”