Above, Gage Middle School is piloting a transcendental meditation program designed to help students reduce stress so they can focus on academic success.

When most people think of the winter holidays, they envision festive events with family and friends, kitchens filled with the scents of cooking and baking, finding and exchanging the perfect gift.

But the reality is that the season also can be a time of stress, filled with family pressures, financial worries and looming deadlines.

Transcendental meditation is practiced twice a day during ‘quiet times’ at Gage Middle School.

L.A. Unified mental health experts say that self-care is the key to not simply surviving but thriving during the holidays and other times of stress. This means slowing down and taking time for yourself. Stretch your muscles before you get up in the morning, stick to your exercise routine and take time to take a deep breath and slow down.

“It is imperative we understand and practice the concept of ‘self-care’ in order to be at our best at work, with our own families and ourselves,” said Pia Escudero, director of School Mental Health.

Because mental well-being is also essential component in the classroom, L.A. Unified is piloting an effort to teach self-care techniques to students, helping them identify and de-escalate tension so they can focus on academic success.

Through a grant from the California Endowment, funded by the David Lynch Foundation, students and staff at Gage Middle School are practicing transcendental meditation (TM) for 10 minutes every morning and afternoon. Gage Principal Cesar Quezada built support within his school community to bring TM to students.

“This is part of a wellness effort to support schools in communities impacted by social and economic issues,” said Escudero, adding that TM is not a religion or philosophy. “We know that trauma is prevalent in these communities that affects families and children. By teaching students how to become calm and well-regulated and resilient in the face of adversity, they can be ready to learn.”

During the meditation sessions, students sit at their desks, their eyes closed as the silently repeat the sounds that make up their mantra.

“Academically and socially, students need a way to center and ground themselves, which allows them to focus on their work,” said Angie Morten, a certified TM instructor who was brought by the Lynch Foundation to teach the program at Gage. “They, in turn, are more engaged in the classroom and learning is more fun for them. Students tell me that they are more rested and are able to get more out of their academic experience.”

Following a TM session earlier this week, students at the Huntington Park campus said the technique is having a positive impact on their schoolwork and their lives.

“I have more focus when doing my classwork,” said Nathan Matthew Trujillo. “I also use it when I get ready for a football game.”

Classmate Sebastian Menchaca said TM has helped him cope with the angst of adolescence and keep his emotions and behavior in check.

”TM helped me get all my pieces together and has helped me settle down,” Sebastian said. “I also use it at home and on the weekends. And, I will use it the rest of my life.”