Prescription for mindfulness: Non-profits and hospitals use new practices for healing

In the back of the Mindful Life Project studios in Point Richmond, J.G. Larochette and I sit in two chairs on a wooden patio covered in ivy and heavy with the scent of a lemon tree. Larochette has a scruffy beard and wears gym shorts. He reminds me of gym teacher I had in elementary school, only instead of holding a whistle he holds a mallet in one hand and a slender hand bell in the other. He tells me to close my eyes as the bell chimes.   

“Listen to the sound of bell,” Larochette chanted. “Focus on it. Now listen to the cars passing on the road. Hear the crinkle of the leaves as they sway of wind. Focus on each individual noise around you. Let the noise be what it is—trail its end.”

Guided by his entrancing voice, I began to reevaluate my definition of the words “meditation” and “mindfulness.” As a New York City transplant living in the Bay Area, my assumptions about meditation had always been the same: It is a practice reserved for those lucky few who have the time and luxury to escape life’s lingering obligations.

But as Larochette forced me to listen to every noise, and each distraction I usually try to tune out, I found a deeper sense of concentration. I felt locked into the present moment, focused only on my immediate reactions to these noises. Thoughts of the past and future to-dos fizzled out.

After years of battling with depression and anxiety, Larochette found commonplace mental health services to be mere Band Aids, so he sought an alternative path of healing. He had all the same stigmas about yoga and mindfulness that I had as a rough-around-the-edges New Yorker: That it was a kitsch “hobby” for the wealthy who looked stunning in stretchy clothing.

But then, Larochette said, he started learning exactly what happens in the brain and the body during mindful practices, and how the brain actually “rewires” itself in the process.

“I was like “oh, this is in scientifically proven, “ said Larochette, who was working as a third-grade teacher at Coronado Elementary School in Richmond at the time. “Let’s bring this to youth.”

By then, hundreds of studies had shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction, also known as MBSR, could strengthen decision-making skills in fourth through sixth graders.

Inspired by such studies, Larochette proposed adding a mindfulness program to Coronado’s curriculum. He saw it as a way to help students cope with early-in-life traumas as intractable as poverty and violence.

“Our youth who do have trauma, it’s because of systemic oppression,” said Larochette. “They are not being given the opportunities or experiences that a lot of youth get that are coming from more affluent neighborhoods.”

In the mindfulness class he taught at Coronado, Larochette used five-minute breaks to get seven- and eight-year-olds to meditate silently, guiding them the same way he guided me: he asked them to focus on their breath, the sounds of the room, bodily sensations and the linger of the bell. He introduced them to the practice of training their minds to focus on each individual thought and feeling they had in the present, which for a child whose mind is racing a mile-a-minute might seem an impossible task.

After only a few trainings, he said, the children began to exhibit a change in receptiveness for learning in the classroom, and ability to control their behavior.

“After four minutes, five minutes they opened their eyes and would say, “that’s the most calm I’ve ever felt, that’s the most peaceful I’ve ever felt, that’s the quietest I’ve ever been.”” Larochette said. “You could see in their eyes that something had happened.”

In some cases, the training had a long-lasting effect. Larochette said that years later, a student who ended up in juvenile detention and a group home called him to say that she always found a sense of resilience in the daily mindfulness practice he had once taught her.

In 2012, Larochette took his teachings a step further, by founding the Mindful Life Project. The non-profit now offers mindfulness and yoga training interventions to over 9,000 elementary school students in Richmond, San Pablo, Oakland, Rodeo and Carquinez.

Larochette sums up the reward of training, and what it means to be presently mindful, as “being able to choose how you want to respond skillfully instead of reacting automatically.”

In a way, mindfulness is based on the idea that we can train our minds into new courses of action if we are fully aware of our thoughts, and don’t allow them to become fleeting or automatic. The pressures of the future, or habits of the past, can dissolve with the ability to focus on the present moment.

Since the 1970s, psychologists and neurologists have been studying what happens in the brains of children and adults. MBSR has been a topic of growing interest as thousands of controlled, randomized studies have emerged analyzing the effect MBSR has on groups of individuals with specific conditions such as obesity, polycystic ovary syndrome, chronic back pain. On the whole, such studies show that the practice can reduce tension and anxiety in people with a wide range of mental and physical health issues.

The research has been so compelling that in 2015, the American Psychiatric Association stated that MBSR could help people with conditions ranging from substance abuse to PTSD.

The practice “may lead to changes in patients’ brains, improving connectivity among some brain areas and changing tissue density in key regions,” according to the APA statement.

Joanna Manqueros, a therapist at Kaiser Oakland’s Department of Psychiatry, said meditation and other mindfulness practices are so broadly effective because they strengthen the neuroplasticity of the mind,.

“It helps you develop the way you are able to respond to the conditions of life,” said Manqueros, who likened the “plastic” brain like it is a rubber band for its ability to bounce back from stressful situations.

Kaiser Permanente—one of the largest medical hospitals and insurance providers in California—is one of the primary funders of the Mindful Life Project. For this school year, Kaiser provided $80K for the project to train elementary students. 

Manqueros said Kaiser has supported MBSR since the 1990s and yoga practices since 2013, for patients coping with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and physical conditions such as chronic pain. The MBSR and yoga programs have been effective for patients who struggle to schedule an appointment with an overbooked mental health physician, or to afford the cost of psychiatric medications, Manqueros says after seeing “reduced symptoms of trauma, discontinued anxiety medications, and increased resilience” in patients.

Yoga and mindfulness can also assist with “increased heart rate, shortness of breath, hyper alertness,” or what Manqueros says patients call a “wet blanket over the heart,” as a physical description of their suffering.

Manqueros, who is bilingual, said most of the people she sees do not speak English, but she find that chants in class offer a window for connections to form between patients.

She adds that she aims to tear down barriers to learning yoga by encouraging all Kaiser members to give the practice a try.

“It used to be that people would say they couldn’t do yoga if they were overweight, or they couldn’t do mindfulness if they were drinking. Now we say, ‘Let’s start anywhere, through any door. Let’s find wellness,’” Manqueros said.

Kaiser membership is not the only way to access such alternative therapies these days. Mindfulness and yoga apps offer in-the-hand virtual trainings, allowing users to set mediation reminders, and participate in timed, guided sessions.

In fact, Google supported Mindful Life Project by granting the organization $12K in 2017.

Larochette continues to expand on the Mindful Life project to increase wellness in culturally engaging ways by encouraging youth using expressive arts, hip hop, offering monthly workshops that are open to all ages, and establishing ties with healthcare representatives to educate on them on why the practice is worth writing a prescription. 

As my own mindfulness training session with Larochette came to an end, I opened my eyes.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Different, somehow,” I answered truthfully.

On the BART train home, I felt my muscles relax from the yoga, and tried to jot down a new definition of mindfulness in my notebook. I listened to the haunting whirr of the train, and the obnoxious crunch of a passenger behind me as he devoured a bag of nacho cheese Doritos.

Could I allow the present to be what it was without wanting change it? Probably not.

But at least I now had the ability to ask myself the question.

Text feature by Alexa Hornbeck, Video by Alexa Hornbeck and Yingshan Deng.

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