Teaching Yoga in Inner-City Schools

Kripalu Yoga teacher Deborah Cohen has two passions: yoga and teaching children. So when a Boston public school came to her wanting a yoga program for its inner-city students, Debbie was crushed to have to tell them she couldn’t do it.

“I couldn’t afford to go out there and teach yoga, and I felt so bummed about that,” she recalls.

Because she wasn’t in a position at that point in her career to volunteer her time, the idea of a yoga program in the inner-city schools went onto Debbie’s back burner, for another time.

Debbie has been teaching yoga for 15 years, but it was just three years ago that she was able to combine her passion for yoga and her passion for teaching children when she joined forces with the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living. Working closely with Institute faculty, she helped develop and implement their Kripalu Yoga in the Schools (KYIS) curriculum, testing it at Waltham High School. But she still felt something lacking.

“I always wanted to be in the inner-city schools,” Debbie says, particularly in the Boston public school system, which so desperately wanted—and needed—a yoga program. To make this dream a reality, Debbie created the Susan E. Tift Yoga in Schools Program Fund in honor of the passing of one of her longtime yoga students.

A Teaching for Diversity grant from Kripalu’s Rachel Greene Memorial Fund, along with support from some of her regular yoga students, launched the fund and allowed Debbie to take yoga to her first inner-city school: the Jeremiah E. Burke School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The grant from Kripalu also allowed Debbie to pay an assistant and to purchase supplies, including a yoga mat, straps, and blocks, for every student.

In addition to teaching kids good posture and how to breathe properly (and helping them understand the way breath affects the nervous system and the way we think), what Debbie cares about most is teaching them how to have fun and relax. “I’ll turn on my chant music and tell them, ‘Breathe in, think to yourself what’s happening now, breathe out, no problem.’”

Most important, Debbie provides students with tools for shifting their perspective, which is enormous for them. “Some of these kids have big problems. For them to have the opportunity to experience their lives and stop and say ‘OK, what can I do next?’ is so important. When they learn to let their bellies go and let the breath in, it’s like they’re allowed to breathe, allowed to thrive, allowed to take it in.”

The Boston public school system is now interested in initiating an elective physical education program, starting with a yoga option, and Debbie recently completed a curriculum and manual for training teachers to teach yoga to kindergarteners on up to high school students. Kripalu is funding 10 scholarships for teachers lined up to take Debbie’s new training.

Debbie’s primary goal is to continue what Kripalu’s funding help her start—a yoga program in the Boston public schools—and she says that goal has transformed her life as well as the students’ lives. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to have it happen and, in that way it changes me, and it makes me happy.”

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