My Experience Teaching Koru
Amanda Youssef, MEd, RP, CCC
September 5, 2016
It’s September, and I’m preparing to teach my 6th Koru course at McMaster University. The campus that was quiet over the summer months, is now buzzing with new students and a new semester full of promises and fears. Some students are embarking on the first in this new chapter of their lives, while for others, this is the beginning their final chapter in their educational careers.
I began teaching Koru to McMaster students in the Fall of 2015, eager to provide this as an adjunct service to the increasing numbers of students seeking mental health services from our Student Wellness Centre (SWC). I have served there as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist for 6 years, providing individual counselling as well as running a number of groups to try and manage the growing number of students with mental health concerns. Some of the groups I facilitate are structured, such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, and others, are psychoeducational groups I’ve developed including Building Healthy Relationships, and A Group for Every Body (for body image and disordered eating behaviours).
Part of my job in the SWC is to provide triage, that is, walk-in consultation appointments for students seeking counselling for the first time. As a treatment option, I often assign these students to groups during these appointments. Despite the fact that the SWC provides over 15 different groups, students are often quite hesitant to attend groups, and prefer individual counselling, which of course, compounds our difficulty to keep up with the demand. Not so with Koru. There is something special about this group, which from the start, required no cajoling or persuasion on my part in order to get students to participate. In fact, the SWC now runs this group several times a semester, offering it at different timeslots to meet the differing needs of students’ timetables. This also allows us to keep group numbers small. While I have run a group with 14 students, most of my groups have had 4-5 students participating, which I’ve found to be optimal for my personal comfort and teaching style. My groups have been very mixed, consisting of undergraduate, graduate, and medical students, of a variety of ages and ethno-cultural backgrounds. Some students have referred themselves to the group, while others have been referred through the SWC, whether by a triage appointment, through another clinician, or through one of our programs on campus. They report that they attend for a variety of reasons, but it seems to come down to the desire to manage stress and find new methods to contend with anxiety. Some have a basic understanding of mindfulness to begin with, and attend Koru with a wish to build on this and connect with a community with which to practice, however, for most, this is their first foray into the world of mindfulness and meditation.
I find myself gratefully amazed at the retention rates of our Koru groups. Despite the fact that their schedules are already too busy, students commit to attending the four weeks of class. They pour in great dedication to their new meditation practices and mindfulness activities, and share week after week with one another, developing bonds with each other that often extend outside of the walls of the Koru classroom.
As I have taught the Koru skills over the course of this past year, I have learned the value of using the skills in my own life. Not only do I then benefit from the skills themselves, but I find I can more readily answer some of the questions that come at check-in with the awareness that comes out of my own (still limited, but growing) experience.
Each group I teach, in turn, teaches me valuable lessons. For example, one of my students used dynamic breathing when she was crying uncontrollably following a breakup with her boyfriend. She found it very effective, and I was honoured that she shared this intimate experience with our class.
Inevitably, by the final class, most students report personal growth resulting from their new mindfulness practices. Perhaps one of the most heartening changes I witness, are the small alterations in students’ speech over the course of the four weeks that indicate an increase in their self-compassion.
Indeed, small incremental gains in my own self-compassion is one of the many personal changes I have noticed since beginning my Koru training last summer. Before this training, I’d had some mindfulness background, both personally and professionally, including using mindful birthing to birth my daughter at home nearly four years ago. My Koru training began with its own challenges, as I slipped a disc in my spine on the first of the five days of training. In Petaluma, California, far away from my home in Ontario, Canada, I once again, had the opportunity to allow mindfulness and meditation to be my partner in pain. Since then, mindfulness has infused my life. My work both at McMaster, and in my private practice is laced with mindfulness based therapies, including Koru. This likely would not have happened if I did not also feel changed as a person by mindfulness. I now have a daily meditation practice, which includes nightly meditations with my four year old. She has recently completed pre-school, where they have since adopted meditations at nap time, thanks to my daughter’s tendency to share about her home life! I am beyond thrilled to know that the Koru training I received has somehow led to a pre-school practice that will continue even though our time there has come to an end! This seems to be the potential of Koru; to spread in ways unimaginable and uncontainable. When I think of each student at McMaster to whom I teach Koru, the potential lives that may be positively impacted by a ripple effect is immeasurable. How truly beautiful that I can bear witness to some of this.
I was surely unaware of what I was headed toward when I boarded that plane to California in the summer of 2015. Certainly, I cannot fathom the new paths this mindfulness road will take me. But I do know one thing, I will be forever grateful to my Koru Instructors, Holly, Libby, and Jennie, for Koru, and for their patient and effective way of teaching it.