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The Teaching for Diversity Issue: Six Stories of Transformation

Winter 2009–2010

by our members

From “Yogurt” to Life Skills: Teaching Yoga to Inner-City Children

Since 2002, I have supervised a three-week yoga program at Camp Courant, one of the largest free day camps for inner-city children in the nation. I created the program with Beth Gibbs, Director at Camp Courant, and my responsibilities include organizing the program, supervising and assisting our two yoga teachers, and teaching a group of five- and six-year-olds. Five- to 8-year-olds take introductory classes, while 11- and 12-year-olds join the Yoga Rocks Club, which meets daily for one hour throughout the three weeks.

It has been an incredibly rewarding experience to see the children’s interest in yoga blossom. At first they didn’t know what yoga was and were resistant-they would jokingly call it “yogurt.” Now they get off the bus on the first day of camp and ask, “When does the yoga program start?” This program has been one of my most labor-intensive efforts, and to see the children valuing and loving yoga is a wonderful blessing. It’s rewarding when they tell me how they use yoga to calm down when they are upset and to relax when they are stressed. It’s rewarding to see yoga providing these children with a healthy skill set for dealing with life’s challenges. It’s rewarding to observe children like Raven Mitchell, age 10, who has participated in the program for the last three years and now assists in classes for the younger children. It is my hope to one day see Raven get a scholarship from Kripalu to become a yoga teacher.

As well as receiving a grant from Teaching for Diversity, I have also donated back to the program. How could I not when I have seen first-hand what the yoga program at Camp Courant has done for the children? I hope to see yoga programs for children in need starting up around the nation and worldwide, and donating to TFD is the way to make this happen.

—Laura Magnussen, Windsor, Connecticut, KYTA member since 2002

Relaxing into the Unknown: Teaching Yoga to Cancer Patients

My Teaching for Diversity grant supported a series of sessions offering relaxation exercises and meditation techniques to cancer patients at Boston Medical Center. Most of these new yogis were women who had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer and those who had been living with breast cancer, though some patients with ovarian cancer also joined the group. The sessions were offered in a chair rather than on the floor, and though yoga was new to almost everyone, they were all able to do the breathing exercises, body-based meditative visualizations, and yoga postures. The more I slowed down the movements, the more they enjoyed them.

What the students told me most frequently was that after classes, they felt calmer and less anxious about everything in their lives. They became more comfortable relaxing as they gradually befriended their bodies, which they felt had turned against them. One woman who did not speak English came regularly with her daughter, who told me that her mother enjoyed the classes so much that it didn’t matter that they weren’t in Arabic.

I am struck by how regular people become living testimonies of courage as they move through extraordinarily diffcult experiences. I was again and again inspired by their dignity as they faced not knowing whether they would get better or not. Teaching yoga to students who were aware of the preciousness of time was a huge gift for me. It increased my appreciation for the magic sacredness in every moment, which in turn increased my comfort in supporting people in handling challenges associated with illness.

—Anna Dunwell, Newton Center, Massachusetts, KYTA member since 2003

Working with What Is: Teaching Yoga to Aboriginal Teenagers in Canada

Funded by two Teaching for Diversity grants, I taught yoga to aboriginal teenagers in Canada this year and last year, first in a local high school gym class and then in a residential home. Most of the teen girls at the high school came from the far northern reservations, where there is almost no road access-fly-in only. Their exposure to yoga up there is nonexistent. Body wisdom, self-love, nurturing their spirit and body-all of these concepts are foreign to them. They are sent away to school with no preparedness for the big-city lights and the fast-moving society, and many of them are sent back home, week by week, as they fall prey to drugs and alcohol or to homesickness and loneliness.

The little bit of yoga that I was able to offer the girls opened their minds to possibilities and new avenues of thought and expression. I could see the impact on one of the girls in particular as she began to be more cognizant of her body and her awareness of breath and energy. I could see she gathered strength and confidence in her mind and spirit as she became more confident and strong in her body. I believe that it will stay with her and she will be able to draw from that place of peace and strength that she found in yoga as she navigates the challenges of moving into a society with new rules, etiquette, and goals. Sometimes she was the only girl who would show up for class, but I learned not to take it personally. I had to let go of my ego and remember if I touched only one person with my intention, that was good enough.

Teaching at the residential home was very challenging. One of the young men I taught there committed suicide a couple months later; this is very common with this population—a tragic statistic. He was difficult to teach, but I tried to convey all my mindfulness and kindness through my eyes and tone of voice when I looked at him. He was often antagonistic, and I met his rudeness with a non-reacting, peaceful gaze, with acceptance. I didn’t negate it, but didn’t engage in it either. One of the young girls noticed how I reacted to his energy, and in a thank-you card afterwards wrote, “You are soft with the hardest of people.” I know my “yoga attitude” and energy were a positive influence on her. I am now working on an arrangement with the residential facility and the Canadian Mental Health Association to run a regular program for their clients. This work has made me realize how different we are, and how much we are alike as well.

—Colleen Sadler, Thunder Bay, Ontario, KYTA member since 2004

Completing the circle: Teaching, Giving, and Receiving

In 2006, I received a Teaching for Diversity grant to bring yoga to women living in a shelter after escaping domestic violence, as well as women recovering from substance abuse who had lost custody of their children. It was amazing to see how the yoga affected them as they pulled themselves out of these situations. They especially loved the Warrior pose, because of its feeling of strength and power.

Last year I received a Rachel Greene Memorial Fund scholarship to attend Yoga Ed™ training at Kripalu. Using the elements and inspiration I gained from that training, as well as my background as a visual artist and educator, I have since created a self-empowerment and community-building program for at-risk adolescent girls that combines yoga, art, health awareness, and leadership activities. I also joined the teaching team for a yoga program, run by Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, at a public high school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. This is my second year co-teaching yoga as part of their physical education classes for the year. It is quite an exhilarating feeling to enter a high school classroom, transformed into a yoga space, and to have the privilege of watching an equally remarkable transformation take place in their young lives.

KYTA has given me tools through its grants to go out in the world to do work that is important and also supports the growth of my practice. For that reason, I was eager to give back when I had the opportunity. When my father died, I made a donation to the Teaching for Diversity program in his name-it felt like a really good "right action." My mom, who’s now 83 and still practicing yoga, is the one who first introduced me to yoga, and she was so happy to hear about this donation. Teachers are definitely a segment of the population that is under-supported and undervalued. That’s why I appreciate KYTA’s support so much.

—Karen Arp-Sandel, Canaan, New York, KYTA member since 2001

Creating Sustainability: Teaching for the Long Term

Teaching for Diversity grants are a great way to get a new class started in a social-service agency serving a special-needs population, where yoga can readily be seen as a complementary therapy to other services already provided by the agency. For a new teacher confronting the difficulty of finding that first job, creating your own class may be the doorway to gaining real-time teaching experience. And the personal rewards of bringing yoga to people who may never find their way to a yoga studio are huge.

But TFD grants are relatively short-term in the extent of their funding for any one class. Once you’ve got a class going, you’ll need to find other sources of funding in order to make it sustainable for the long term. As wonderful as introducing yoga to a special-needs population may be, it’s infinitely better if that class can continue with sustainable financing.

Having started a class on a volunteer basis at a residential facility for adolescent mothers last year, I started the search for funding to attract a more qualified teacher. The TFD grant got us started, and Kripalu Yoga teacher Senta Reis was able to begin teaching. She followed up with another short-term grant from an agency supporting women’s issues. Now the class had been running for a year, and we had young moms benefiting from a weekly ongoing yoga practice.

I then solicited help from KYTA, and we came up with a plan establishing a dedicated fund within the TFD program. We were able to attract a generous grant from the Berkshire Kripalu Community in conjunction with my own personal contribution. Since KYTA is a non-profit, its involvement allowed my contribution to qualify for a matching contribution from my employer under its charitable giving program, and suddenly we had something that was starting to look like sustainable financing. The final step was convincing the director of the facility to budget $10 per class toward sustainability.

If you can start a class using a TFD grant or even as a volunteer at an agency, you may find that, in addition to helping launch your own teaching career, the good work you are doing may well attract more sustainable financing.

—Gregg Day, West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, KYTA member since 2006

On the Mat, Behind Bars: Teaching Yoga at the Ontario County Jail

At first the men are focused on checking each other out. They giggle and throw snide comments across the room at each other. They glance out the windows to see who may be passing by, who may be watching them in yoga class.

The whole idea of becoming quiet and centering seems like an invitation to let their imaginations run-away from the focus of the practice. So I skip it. Swinging twist, everyone-exhale at the back of the twist, inhale to the front. Pick up the pace!

Next I try the graceful side stretch we know as Ardha Chandrasana. In the middle of the second row I hear some more snorts and a whispered, “This is ballet.”

Okay. We take a forward bend, step back, and explore the details of plank for a while before descending carefully and slowly to Chataranga, stretching upward to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, and finally pressing back to Adho Mukha Svanasana. They’re not giggling anymore. When I suggest they drop their knees to the floor and relax in Child pose, there is a great sigh of relief. Their focus has now shifted to the posture. We re-engage Adho Mukha Svanasana, working the details of the posture-grounding the hands and feet, stretching the hamstrings, opening the shoulders, lengthening the spine. Remarkably, after a little more practice most of the Down Dogs are looking a lot straighter.

I never ask what they did to get here. In class they are simply fellow yogis.

By the end of the class they are happy to take Savasana and surrender into quietness. We sit up for a final few moments of breathwork and take in the benefits of the practice. I greet them with “Namaste” and they return the greeting with sincerity. Then we get up off the dirty linoleum floor, roll up the mats, and go our separate ways.

Over time they enter the room fully able to begin with the pranayama and centering, and I observe their bodies straighten and balance. In an unsolicited letter of appreciation presented to me a few weeks ago, the men stated that "“he time spent within our practice has proved much more than ’time served’ … You have helped to improve our physical, mental, and emotional well-being in ways few of us ever expected.”

My most treasured affirmation occurred one day as we picked up the mats after practice and I heard one man remark to his fellow inmate, “I wasn’t in jail anymore.”

—Wendy Stoddard, Canandaigua, New York, KYTA member since 2008

To donate to the Teaching for Diversity program, click here.

For an application for a Teaching for Diversity or Rachel Greene Memorial Fund grant, click here.

Complete list of articles by this author:

Yoga Notes

Hot off the Mat: KYTA members share their stories

The Studio Space

Hot Off the Mat: KYTA members share their stories

The Teaching for Diversity Issue: Six Stories of Transformation

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