Bart Van Melik has always been fascinated by the mind. A chance meeting with monks in Thailand put him on a path of teaching meditation and movement to kids in juvenile detention centers, alternative learning centers, and homeless shelters across the City. He loves it. But he's quick to point out that his students teach him just as much as he teaches them.
When you talk to him, it's clear why he is so successful at engaging his students—he meets them where they're at by listening to them, rather than talking down to them. During class, he takes a three-pronged approach: He invites contemplation with a question, moves into mindful movement—which includes yoga and Qi Qong—and ends each class with meditation.
Van Melik works with themes taken from his students' day-to-day lives—tackling issues like trust, love, worry, and anger—so they can see the real world applications and benefits of meditation and yoga.
Recently, YogaCity NYC's Dar Dowling caught up with Van Melik to learn more about his dynamic teaching style and his success at bringing meditation and yoga into the lives of the kids who need it the most.
Dar Dowling: Have you always meditated?
Bart Van Melik: I have always been intrigued by the mind and majored in the psychology of religion and culture, but something was missing. Then, when I was visiting Thailand with my wife, we discovered a monastery in the heart Bangkok. While talking with the monks, I asked them “How do you mediate?”
They told me to sit down and watch the rising and the falling of my breath from the belly—and I did. Later on, they told me to watch the lifting and placing of your foot during a walking mediation. I must say that while it sounds weird, it clicked for me. I was totally at ease with the dynamic experience of the moment.
Afterward, I went back home and discovered the same meditation style was available in my town. I began going to retreats where I met my mentors Joseph Goldstein and Carol Wilson. I then started experiencing moments of contentedness, where I realized how peaceful it was to not project into the future or go back to the past—and even if I did, I was still in the moment.
DD: How did you start teaching mindfulness meditation in NYC?
BVM: We had been to New York a few times, and every time it was hard to leave. So we decided to give it a try for a year. We arrived in NYC in 2008—I wanted to focus on meditation and my wife wanted to concentrate on her photography. As soon as I arrived, I went on a six-week silent retreat with Joseph Goldstein, and I realized I wanted to teach meditation to people who are not that likely to do this kind of practice, especially youths.
At the end of the retreat, I shared my aspirations with Joesph, and he offered to reach out to people who might be able to help me. That's how I started working with The Lineage Project. At first, I was a volunteer and, after a year, they offered me a position teaching in a juvenile detention center.
DD: What was that like?
BVM: In the beginning, I didn’t understand the kids because they used slang, although I am well versed in it now. They really liked the idea that I was culturally humble and loved sharing more about their world with me, which opened them up to what I had to offer.
The beauty of The Linage Project is that we start each class with a discussion and we often talk about issues I had not planned on addressing, like something they are going through that day. They invite me to be totally present and each class is like a mini retreat.
DD: Your classes have been very successful with youths—why?
BVM: Instead of focusing on teaching them yoga, I focus on using it to relieve stress and learn to relax. When I frame it in these terms, they are more likely to participate because they often have preconceived ideas of what yoga is, based on the media, so they often think they can't do it.
I also realized that Qi Qong can be an important part of mindful movement because it synchronizes the breath and it's an invitation to be aware. Some kids have a hard time with the physical aspects, so if I start with Qi Qong and accessible yoga poses, they start to realize that they can do it. Also, during class, the kids help and learn from each other and realize that they are not alone.
DD: What are some of the keys to teaching meditation and helping kids relax?
BVM: Sometimes kids think they can't meditate. For example, one kid said “I can't do that, I have ADD,” so I asked him if he plays video games—and of course he did. I pointed out that he was concentrating whenever he played them and it was an “aha” moment for him—he realized he could concentrate. With kids, you just need to be flexible and creative in order to show them that they can.
Kids are are often told to just relax, but then they tense up because they don’t know how to relax, and they get anxious. It makes more sense to invite them, and people in general, to reflect on what leads to relaxation, so they can see that it's all about receiving and allowing. But it's also about learning to pause when emotions come up.
DD: What do you mean?
BVM: Sometimes we ask them what they want to talk about in class, and they may come up with something they are going through or feeling. Then we teach them that they are not their thoughts or emotions, especially when they are negative.
If we're talking about anger, I ask them to think about which emotion triggered their anger—whether it's frustration, hurt, disappointment, or something else—so they see the cause and effect. It's also huge when they realize they are not their anger, that it just flows through their mind—it comes and goes. I tell them: "When you're angry, pause, feel your body, and see where the anger is manifesting."
It really works. One 15-year-old boy came up to me and said: “Just before this class, I wanted to smack someone. So I paused, and then I wanted to smack him again, and I paused, and then it happened again, and I paused...” He had definitely gotten in touch with what it meant to pause, and I was really proud of him.
I am very proud of my students. They are my heroes—and Super-heroes.