Meet Abby Wills, and learn about Shanti Generation, Guiding Teens to Bring Mindfulness to Life

 

Interviewed by Aviva DeKornfeld

“I recall a 13 year old student approaching me on the first day of school at the beginning of yoga class, which was part of the psycho-physical education program. She walked up to me smiling and said in a sing-song voice, ‘I can't do yoga because I'm ADD.’ I was struck by her words and approach. I replied, ‘Who told you you can't do yoga if you have ADD?’ She said, ‘My mom.’ I said, ‘Well, let's see how it goes.’ Over time, she came to know that yoga and mindful practices help to train the mind to focus attention willfully. After 2 or 3 classes she was able to easily sit for over 5 minutes of practice at a time. She discovered that mindfulness and yoga are not just about ‘doing,’ but ‘being.’ By the end of the semester, she was a leader in class and continued for 3 full years to enroll, engage and thrive in the class!”

note from susan

"Peace is not only possible," writes Abby Wills in this month’s shout-out profile. "Peace is our natural state." I'm delighted to shine a light on Abby Wills and her work with Shanti Generation, the organization she co-founded in 2009 to bring mindfulness and yoga to youth. I’ve admired Abby and her work for close to a decade now. Our paths had crossed many times over the years, but it was only recently that we realized that we share a meditation teacher - the wonderful Tsokyni Rinpoche. I appreciate the care and consistency that Abby brings to her work and am in awe of her steadfast commitment to developing and implementing meaningful social and emotional offerings in the public sphere.


tell us about Shanti generation - the organization and its unique mission?

Shanti Generation designs yoga and mindful practice programs for children, young teens and the adults who work with them. Our programs are delivered in live workshops and trainings, as well as digitally through DVD and streaming. We work directly with schools throughout Southern California via partnerships with several organizations including Barnsdall Arts and Full Circle Consulting Systems, Inc. We offer direct service with youth of all ages, professional development with school staff and in-depth training for adults who wish to teach young people.

the tag line of shanti generation is “guiding teens to bring mindfulness to life”How did you came to open the shanti generation center? 

I co-founded Shanti Generation in 2009 to provide greater access to yoga and mindful practices to children and young teens. At the time, there were many resources for young children and families to explore mindfulness, but very few for older children and teens. I wanted my own students to have resources to continue their practices beyond the classroom. I also needed an organization to support more immersive practice experiences off campus. Our Youth Peacemakers Program brings teens ages 14-16 together for 15 months to practice yoga, mindfulness, compassionate communication and conscious social activism.

Can you describe a memorable moment of working with a teen that sticks out to you in particular and why?

I recall a 13 year old student approaching me on the first day of school at the beginning of yoga class, which was part of the psycho-physical education program. She walked up to me smiling and said in a sing-song voice, "I can't do yoga because I'm ADD." I was struck by her words and approach. I replied, "Who told you you can't do yoga if you have ADD?" She said, "My mom." I said, "Well, let's see how it goes." Over time, she came to know that yoga and mindful practices help to train the mind to focus attention willfully. After 2 or 3 classes she was able to easily sit for over 5 minutes of practice at a time. She discovered that mindfulness and yoga are not just about "doing," but "being." By the end of the semester, she was a leader in class and continued for 3 full years to enroll, engage and thrive in the class! I chose this story because I see many people who believe they are incapable of inner peace and feel driven by their own minds. I believe anyone can find a deeper level of peace provided clear and stable instruction in the techniques of mindful practice. 

Now that mindfulness has become popular, the word has taken on various meanings. Help us understand where it comes from and what mindfulness means? 

The meaning of mindfulness changes depending on the audience. With young children, I start by engaging them in the practice of being kind to their bodies and others. I've found that present moment kindness to ourselves and others helps create the conditions for awareness to grow. As children grow in their understanding of past, present and future, I work to help them find the present moment through listening to sounds and becoming aware of sensation in their bodies. Adolescent students are able to work with the concept of being aware of what is happening within and around them with curiosity and kindness, moment to moment, and can begin the work with their minds directly.

in What ways do you practice mindfulness and meditation in your own life?

I practice sitting and walking meditation, as well as mindful yoga asana and breathing. In addition to formal practice, I integrate moments of mindful practice at intervals throughout my daily routine. Being mindful in relationships and communication is especially challenging and beneficial. Lately, I've enjoyed letting to of most of the effort and allowing mindfulness to occur more naturally from a place of trust, moving beyond concept and into the truth of the mind as open and peaceful. 

many people have difficulty getting in tune with their bodies, as well as their minds. what advice do you have for them? 

Be patient and kind. The body can hold our experiences well after the experiences themselves have ended. Seek an experienced teacher of movement and mediation who can support the process and help navigate the journey into the body safely and securely. Be courageous and know it is not only possible, but completely natural to relieve the body of past experiences and find space in the present body. Start slow and be consistent. I refer to my teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who teaches to first "drop" whatever is ready to be dropped, and to continuously drop our awareness deeper into the body. Feel the sensations of the body without judgement. Acknowledge whatever feelings arise. When ready, follow the breath deeper and deeper. Work on expanding and lengthening the breath. Once the mind is accustomed to being aware of the body, draw the focus inward on the inhales. Practice releasing tension as much as building strength in the body. The body is miraculous system! Get curious and explore it with self-compassion.

when you look at the accomplishments of Shanti generation so far, What are you most proud of?

What I value most about Shanti Generation is that every aspect of the organization is informed by direct experience with youth and practice. I appreciate that our organization marries teaching in mindfulness with understanding of child development. 

If there’s one thing you want people to take away from your work, what would it be?

Peace is not only possible. Peace is our natural state. 

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

ABBY WILLS, MA, RYT, is a Yoga Education instructor who teaches kids and teens at public, private and yoga schools in Los Angeles, California. With over 16 years experience teaching children, Abby is devoted to sharing the light of yoga with youth of all ages. In addition to her teaching practice, Abby facilitates teacher trainings internationally and continues her studies in the Human Development department at Pacific Oaks College, learning new ways to effect social change through critical pedagogy and yoga. 

Abby co-created Shanti Generation Yoga Skills for Youth DVD and co-founded Shanti Generation Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to making yoga more accessible to youth and teachers.

 

Susan Kaiser Greenland