For Vanessa De Jesus Guzman, our NJMOMprenuer of the week, mindfulness is a way of life—and the foundation for everything. As a counselor, she’s implemented that philosophy at her practice, Free to Be Mindful, where kids and adults learn the techniques for a calmer, more mindful life. And if there’s ever been a time for mindfulness, that would be now—knowing how much families, especially kids, needed mindfulness to cope, Vanessa went virtual. Her free Zoom classes for kids and online meditation meet-ups for moms has been a lifeline for those struggling during this uncertain time. We chatted with her about the importance of children learning mindful techniques, how she practices mindfulness with her 6-year-old son (spoiler alert: she does lose her cool sometimes) and the virtual workouts that she is so grateful for right now.
featured image via Sarah Sanders Photography
Can you tell us about your background?
Culturally, I am a first-generation Dominican-American. My parents came to the United States shortly after getting married in their early 20s. I started kindergarten knowing only how to speak Spanish. My parents and I learned English together by watching shows like Sesame Street.
Professionally, I’m a middle school counselor and a licensed associate counselor. I am the owner of Free to Be Mindful where I provide mindfulness classes and training to help children, mothers, and educators. I’m almost at the end of a year-long journey of becoming a certified mindfulness instructor. I believe everyone should have a mindful foundation in their lives and this is a way I can make it more accessible.
I have lived in Hudson County since the 4th grade and my parents live just a few minutes away from me. While the traffic can be intense, I love the diversity within my community, having immediate access to delicious restaurants and amazing stores and beautiful NYC skyline views. My family is loving and loud—I have an amazing husband and a creative 6-year-old son who both have a sensational sense of humor, and don’t ever let me take myself too seriously.
Free to Be Mindful sounds like a unique place—what influenced you to develop the Free to Be Mindful programs?
The expectation placed on children these days is very high—they have a lot of academic and social pressures, with a higher emotional need than we did growing up. Mindfulness helps children enhance their social-emotional skills, in addition to increasing their emotional intelligence. Children are not fully present and ready to learn in their classrooms if they do not clear their minds and hearts first—mindfulness helps with this.
For mothers, I founded a movement called Amiga Moms, which has monthly events for socializing as well as teaching mindfulness strategies on how to cope and stay present for themselves and their families. As parents, we should remember our kids are always learning from us, and to model the behavior and positive actions we want them to do.
Why is mindfulness so important for everyone, but especially kids?
I define mindfulness as paying attention to the “right here, right now,” without judgment, and treating yourself with kindness and curiosity. There is much research that shows how mindfulness can reduce stress, regulate emotions, and help to sustain focus, among many other things. These days, our kids are raised with a “go, go, go” mentality, especially here in New Jersey and the Northeast. Mindfulness helps us live in the present moment, rather than being upset about the past or stressing the future. With a mindfulness practice, children and adults can train their brains to make better choices in that tiny space between a trigger stimulus and our reaction.
How have you pivoted Free to Be Mindful in the current COVID climate? Why do you think it’s important now and how can it help?
Before COVID-19 I provided mindfulness classes in my office. Once our state moved to virtual learning, I was able to foresee the stressors children and families would be experiencing and knew in my heart I had to continue to share the importance of mindfulness with children. I immediately began offering free classes for kids ages 5-10 via Zoom. Families simply register on my website and they receive the log-in information for classes, now held Wednesdays during May and going forward.
It’s so important to have a mindfulness practice in this situation since we’re missing what we had and anxiously awaiting our changed future. Mindfulness helps us appreciate our current family time and it can help us have more empathy and compassion for others, and ourselves. It is truly my hope that from this collective experience we learn more about ourselves and the beauty of our world.
How have you incorporated mindfulness into your stay-at-home routine?
Taking time to appreciate my family, my home, and my community helps me remember to stay anchored in my breath in times of stress and overwhelm. I start my mornings with an affirmation I’m feeling (or need) for the day. Throughout the day I take breaks as needed and will admire nature. In the evenings we let loose with a dance party. When I put my son to bed, we reflect and think of things we’re grateful for that day. At night, I do a workout and give thanks for my ability to exercise and take profound breaths—I look at it as a privilege given the current climate.
However, it’s called a mindfulness practice for a reason. I do have moments where I lose my patience and cool. My son is all about mindfulness as he co-hosts the weekly classes with me, and often reminds me of when I need to be mindful—he will be the first to say, “Mami remember to breathe,” and will guide me to take deep breaths until we both end up in giggles.
What local businesses are you supporting right now?
Although we’ve been indoors the past few months, I have tried to support small businesses virtually. I take salsa classes with Peak Latin Dance, Vixen Army workout classes with Cece Perez, and my son and I listen to online storytimes with Jersey City author Andi Green, of The Worry Woos.
What advice do you have for any other mompreneurs trying to stay afloat during the pandemic or just starting?
Listen to your heart—the never-ending scrolling of social media can lead you to doubt yourself. If we come from a place of service, we can use our skills and talents to share our message with others. Once you have chosen to follow your heart don’t wait for perfection, just do it—imperfect will always beat out not done.