Aliya Qutub is a coordinator for the Doha Mindful Community and has worked with families as well as schools to teach mindfulness to children. Here, Lisa Gay asks her more about discovering mindfulness in Doha, its benefits, and easy ways to incorporate the practice into family life.
Q&A with Aliya Qutub
by Lisa Gay
L: Tell us a bit about your background.
A: I entered mindfulness, as we say, through the yoga door. I came to Doha 12 years ago with three young children. I didn’t have a lot of support, so I started practising yoga to cope. Soon after, I took an MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) course by the founders of the Doha Mindful Community.
After years of practising, reading, and taking courses on topics like mindful parenting and mindful communication, I decided to finish my certification and become a teacher. I also did a yoga teacher training [course], as I believe that along with formal meditation, there is a need for a more accessible, movement-based practice. My focus, however, is to create a platform for sharing mindfulness in corporate, school, and community-focused settings.
L: So yoga got you interested in mindfulness in the first place?
A: I had three kids in four years. Two years after that, I moved to Qatar. I was a stay-at-home mom, but my husband had high work pressures and had to travel a lot. I felt burnt out and was looking for extra support and coping strategies to be a better mom and be calmer in general.
L: Anxiety seems to be increasingly common in children nowadays. How can mindfulness help?
A: Throughout all age groups, you see an increase in depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders. Children as young as six or seven are being diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and the influx of social media and screen-time has added to that. It [anxiety] can manifest in attention-related issues, so even in school settings, they often incorporate mindfulness to help children pay attention and sustain that attention for longer periods of time.
L: What are other benefits you can see with mindfulness and children?
A: There are so many! I have done mindfulness workshops in school settings, and I’ve also worked with some really lovely parents that wanted to incorporate mindfulness routines into their home life. I’ll often tell them, “it’s great if I sit and teach mindfulness to your child. But what’s even better is if you attend, and we do it as a family”. Then you can choose whatever resonates with your family.
I think people can become disconnected; they may not know exactly what it is they’re feeling, especially children. But by taking that deep breath and observing, “oh, I can feel anger starting to rise up”, [it] really helps children learn to recognise their emotional landscape. One of the pithy things we say is “name it to tame it” or “feel it to heal it”. I’ve done exercises where we give children a blank colouring sheet with the human body and ask them questions like, “when you feel anger, where do you feel it? What colour is it?”. This makes it more visual for them. And yeah…anger is bright red!
They start to understand how they physically experience emotions, and they learn that these are passing feelings. As teenagers, they can become aware of connections between their physical and emotional states. Maybe they haven’t eaten or slept well, and if they start asking themselves, “what do I need right now?” then that’s amazing.
L: What are simple ways parents can incorporate mindfulness into family life?
A: One of the simplest ways is to incorporate gratitude into family life. At the dinner table, for instance, name three things you are grateful for. What I often see families do—and it’s super cute—is use a gratitude jar. Every time you feel grateful for something or someone, you write it down and put it in the jar. At the end of the week, the family reads them all together. I always start with gratitude, because I think it draws you a little closer as a family.
We also always use breathing as an anchor because you always have it. For young children, I’ll start by putting one of their favourite stuffed animals on their belly, so they can see the stuffed animal rising and falling. Doing three or five breath cycles with a stuffed animal—what I call a “breathing buddy”—is very calming.
Another activity is to do a minute of sitting together. I don’t call it meditation, because I don’t think it’s the right term. It’s more, being in presence with each other. It’s also fun when they are younger, as you can set a timer and challenge the whole family to sit still without fidgeting. You can also mix things up by both sitting and breathing together, and asking each person to count how many breaths they take in a minute.
Doing body breathing is also really nice. You can sit back-to-back and breathe together. When you can feel someone breathing and their heart beating, especially your own child, it just kind of allows all those things that take up our headspace to fade away. It also allows us to connect in a very real way to our children.
L: Some people associate mindfulness with religious practices. What do you tell people when they ask you about that?
A: There are routes of meditation associated with Eastern contemplative practices, but modern mindfulness has been distilled, so it is not related to a [particular] religious practice. There’s nothing in it that should be offensive or make anyone feel uncomfortable. A really good way to look at this is to see the ideals of gratitude, kindness, compassion, and presence behind it—these are very universal.
L: Anything else?
A: I see so many parents who say, “I want my child to learn mindfulness”, but it is important to remember that children learn by example. It’s wonderful to give these tools to our children, but we should also practice with them. Do the activities, share your gratitude, be vulnerable.
You can find out more about Aliya’s work by following the Doha Mindful Community pages on Facebook and Instagram to stay updated on future Mindful Parenting courses and other related events.
Edited for length and clarity.