Mindfulness educator Kristina Cavit teaches young people how to transform their own mental health. The Kindness Institute founder co-presented a 12,500 signature petition to Parliament calling for mental skills training for all New Zealand youth.

1 You were awarded an MNZM and you were a finalist for the 2018 Young New Zealander of the Year for your work in youth mental health. How did you get into voluntary work?

Travelling through South America I was horrified to see young kids being forced into prostitution and drug addiction so I started volunteering with a not-for-profit called Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH). My training is in teaching theatre to kids as a form of dealing with trauma through creativity.

2 When did you first get into mindfulness?

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I began my own practice as a way of coping with stress while helping with the relief effort for the 2010 Haiti earthquake. I was working in an NPH orphanage in the Dominican Republic, which on the same island, so we were able to assist post-quake. The arrival of cholera brought a whole new disaster to thousands of Haitians living in extreme poverty with no running water. People were so dehydrated that doctors in our hospital were having to drill through bone to get I/V solution in. Working in an emergency situation you can't stop to look after yourself. I ended up getting really sick so I went to an ashram in the Bahamas. I hated meditation at first. I found it torturous - I just couldn't be still.

3. How do you describe mindfulness to beginners?

Developing the ability to be present in the moment, without judgement and with kindness. When I make a mistake, I tend to beat myself up about it; mindfulness allows me to see things with a more accurate, compassionate perspective. A Harvard study found 47 per cent of our thoughts are about the past or the future. When we ruminate about the past we become depressed and when we worry about the future we become anxious. We flourish when we're present in the moment. Just as we train our bodies to be strong and flexible, we need to train our minds as well.

4 When did you first notice the benefits of mindfulness for marginalised youth in New Zealand?

Back home I started a mindfulness and yoga programme at Ngā Rangatahi Toa, a creative arts programme for kids that have been kicked out of school. I was blown away by how they responded. The first class is can be a bit uncomfortable. They'll say, 'gee it's lame. It's not for me,' but once they work out they can access this place of calm in their mind, it's like a lightbulb goes off.

5 What inspired you to start The Kindness Institute three years ago?

To tackle New Zealand's mental health epidemic. We have the highest teen suicide rate in the developed world. We need to invest in evidence-based programmes that work and get these tools to our kids from a young age; teaching them how to make friends with their own minds so they can better manage challenges.

6 Do you have any research showing your programme works?

The Mindfulness Education Group, who we partner with, has published three studies now around the benefits of mindfulness in young people. Evaluation of our programme showed an increase in focus and stress management. Our young people also had an increased ability to forgive themselves and people who had really hurt them, and increased connection to community and culture.

Kristina Cavitt, mindfulness educator. Photo / Doug Sherring
Kristina Cavitt, mindfulness educator. Photo / Doug Sherring

7 Can you give an example of someone your programme has helped?

A boy named AJ came to us for support after he began to self-harm. He's at an all-boys school where he was experiencing this toxic 'toughen-up' culture. Mindfulness really clicked for him. He ended up teaching his whanau how to meditate; they practice together every day. He's gone on to lead the school production and Pasifika Samoan group. He shared his story on TV1's Sunday.

8 Do you think mindfulness should be taught more widely?

We had 12,500 people sign our petition asking the government to fund mindfulness training for all young people in Aotearoa. A huge crew came to support us when we handed that in to the government's mental health and addictions inquiry panel including some of our rangatahi who got up and shared their experience. I was blown away by their passion.

9 You also run weekly 'Fat Yoga' classes in Ponsonby and New Lynn. How did that happen?

My friend Sarah Jane Duff who runs a plus size clothing label contacted me and said "Hey I really love yoga but I can't go to regular studio classes because of my size - would you be keen to do something for me and my community?" I was like, "Yes!" That's why I became a yoga teacher, to make it accessible and break down the stereotype that it's just for thin white rich bendy bodies. We started a Facebook event and it sold out within an hour. What we're doing is political; we're reclaiming the word fat so it doesn't hold so much negative power over people.

10 Growing up in Parnell where your parents ran the interior design store Cavit and Co, what inspired you to become a voluntary worker?

My parents taught me how to work super hard. Neither of them grew up rich, they just worked and worked to support my sister and I, who are both adopted. I always feel like I hit the jackpot getting adopted into that family; I was given so much love and support and opportunity. I see it as a duty to do something with that privilege to support those whose voices are not being heard. It's a very rewarding path. Every day I feel so grateful and fulfilled.

11 You've worked in a voluntary capacity for your entire adult life. How do you get by?

Organisations pay me when they can. I do corporate training to help fund The Kindness Institute. It's not been easy; it's been a hustle and a grind, but just when we think we're going to have to close down we'll have an angel arrive with a large donation. We've got by thanks to 30 volunteers, mainly young mums, who are passionate about what we're doing.

12 Is mindfulness an easier concept to sell than it used to be?

When I first started there was the connotation that it was hippy or airy fairy but now neuroscience research behind it backs it up wholeheartedly. Universities like Massachusetts and California have entire departments dedicated to researching mindfulness. The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, tends to thins out over time, but MRI scans show that doesn't happen in long-term meditators. New meditators experience structural changes in just eight weeks. You can actually rewire your brain and form positive neural networks by training your mind.

For more go to www.thekindnessinstitute.com