On a hot, muggy afternoon on the sands of Miami Beach, a tiny yoga instructor in Chicanx pop art stretch pants pulled her fiercely muscular body into tree pose as she worked to keep her sweaty class centered. Kids craned their necks in curiosity while community activists whispered that they should get her number for other workshops. She seemed to embody the kind of strength and calm they needed amid the soaring temperatures of a warming planet and the heightened tensions of America’s political climate.
And that’s exactly what Lucha, is trying to do. Outside of teaching an occasional class in a tourist trap like South Beach, she’s been moving between New York, Miami, and the US-Mexico border looking for ways to implement yoga and drumming techniques into classrooms and youth centers. In fact, she’s one of many yoga instructors who believe this work is especially important to English learners, immigrant and minority students, and other kids in vulnerable social and economic situations. After all, numerous studies suggest yoga can help students reduce stress and anxiety, improve test scores, and become better problem solvers.
Lucha wishes she had that kind of mind-body training growing up as a Latina in San Diego.
“I’m a Borderican,” Lucha says, referencing her Puerto Rican roots. “I grew up watching people run across freeways escaping la migra,” she recalls, referring to immigration authorities. She used to swim in the ocean on the Mexico side because she had the papers to cross back over and there she would witness Mexican families having picnics by the border gates and fencing that extend to the ocean. “That image of gates, the helicopters, the walls, the bars, and the border patrol is quite a powerful one that shaped who I am and how I see the world,” she says.
Her own emotional outlets at the time were much more rough and tumble—first came skateboarding, then came dance, capoeira, drumming, and street art, all with a social justice focus. As an adult, she became a visual artist, DJ, and community organizer, launching all of the above activities through her small company Besos Not Bombs. This allowed her to teach and conduct social outreach to meet the needs of immigrants, refugees, factory workers, the elderly, and low-income students along the borderlands and around New York City, where she is currently based. That’s why she decided to train as an instructor of yoga, nutrition, and preventative health, collaborating with organizations such as Urban Yoga Foundation to make these resources accessible to underserved communities.
“I was seeing a lot of issues—high blood pressure, asthma, immune system disorders, anxiety, so I started sneaking in 20 minutes of yoga a day,” she says. Given the way yoga in America often takes on elitist, bourgeoise connotations, she called it physical therapy or stretching and strengthening, asking her clients “What is your issue? What are you going through?”
Yoga in Academic Classrooms
After a while, she was able to write yoga and meditation into her program activities and even into classes for English as a second language.
“The ESL classes were three hours long so there was plenty of time to teach English and incorporate preventative health,” she says, noting how the students were primarily undocumented and worked a full day before class, raised families, and were adjusting to a foreign land. “When average people are stressed out, their chest closes and they contract which causes more stress and pain, so I started out with some basic stuff like how to open up the chest and breath.”
But if getting yoga, drumming, preventative health and meditation written into the programming of community outreach organizations is hard, it’s even harder to integrate it into public school curriculums, say yoga practitioners.
Another yoga for youth activist, Luisa Estevez, managed to set up ME Time (Mindfulness Education Time), an occasional school visit program in some of the more underserved communities of the Miami Dade public school system, through her LA Luchi Foundation, although funding is still limited.
“When we first started, we found that educators were more concerned about the numbers on the tests,” says Estevez. She convinced administrators that it’s hard to improve scores when kids aren’t sleeping or eating properly because they’re coming from stressed home environments with parents working long hours or worrying about immigration woes.
“Nobody teaches them soft skills, and how to deal with anger, frustration, bullying, and stress,” she told school board officials. “Prolonged and/or intense stress takes a toll on a child, causing anxiety, depression, acting out, physical illness, and learning issues.”
The nonprofit mindfulness organization InsightLA has done much of that same kind of work in California by training the actual teachers and leaders of schools and community centers with a special emphasis on the Latino community in East Los Angeles. Now Insight LA is expanding its work to refugee centers in Tijuana and community and educational centers in Puerto Rico.
Rosa Maria Segura, the director of the organization’s Insight Action program leads some of the trainings and coordinates the rest with other teachers. She says the same introductions she uses to obtain support and funding for this work can be used with the audience the group hopes to teach.
“We begin by explaining and showing how the mind functions—how we’re reacting and acting where there is a stressor in our life, whether it’s fear, anxiety, insecurity, or trauma,” she says, noting that Insight LA instructors offer a scientific explanation of how the mind works. Presenting these ancient spiritual practices in a secular way makes them implementable in a public-school context and more relatable to people of different backgrounds.
Where There is No Yoga Instructor
And while all of these yoga and mindfulness promoters would like to see greater financial and political support for their work, they agree any parent, teacher, or youth leader can try this on their own.
“Mindfulness is having a pause in what we’re doing, just sitting down for a moment and being aware of what’s happening in the body and the mind without judging, without having any expectations,” explains Segura, noting that how you reference what it is you’re doing can also be important. That’s especially true in Spanish because the term mindfulness can translate to conciencia plenaor atención plena. Segura says she prefers conciencia because atencióncan make people feel more stressed out.
“You’re always hearing from your parents and your teachers ‘pay attention’ but no one really tells us how,” says Segura.
And how do you get kids to, well, pay attention enough to grasp all of these concepts?
Lucha likes to get kids excited by beating a drum, then slowing the pace. Estevez likes to ring a Tibetan bowl, a classic yoga instrument because she says many kids find it intriguing and other-worldly. Using these instruments creates a rhythm which can then be used to spend as little as five minutes sitting and thinking quietly about one’s surroundings. From there, it’s easier to get everyone focused on stretches for relaxation and blood flow to the brain.
The most important technique, says Lucha, is to make the exercises relatable to your audience. For instance, if their impression of yoga is that it’s only for posh suburbanites with too much time on their hands, it might help to note that many of their favorite athletes do yoga as well. When she’s in an overcrowded city like New York, she might ask kids about their commute across town. “Don’t you hate it when you’re on a crowded train and it’s hot and you feel like you can’t breathe?” She’ll ask them before teaching a breathing technique.
“Take a look at the history of the demographic you’re dealing with,” she says, laughing that she steers away from telling kids she’s their yoga instructor and that she’s here to heal them. “I just create a safe space and read their needs.”
There are any number of resources for those who don’t have a readily available source. InsightLA offers guided mindfulness videos and it will soon make them available in Spanish. The website Yoga4Classrooms has a wide range of videos, books, and activity card decks for all ages, and the book Sleepy Little Yoga helps kids relax and even sleep by using terminology easy for kids to understand. For example, you can ask children to lean over and touch their toes in a sleeping bat pose, or to curl up on the floor in a ball into a hedgehog pose.
Harvard University’s education blog also notes that these techniques can transform tradition child’s games. For instance, in Red Light, Green Light, the person posing as the traffic signal requires students to move when they shout green light, then pause in a preferred yoga position when the assigned signal person shouts red light. In Mirror, Mirror, the person posing as the mirror can take a yoga pose and ask the students to emulate. And one that’s especially pertinent to children separated from a family member is the loving kindness meditation. In this activity, the children are asked to sit or lie down on the floor, close their eyes and think about a loved one, then envision them close to their heart, comforting themselves and the loved one as they do.
The blog also recommended simple breathing exercises. The easiest it to have the students take a deep breath, hold it and count to three, then breath out forcefully, and repeat that for five cycles. The classic mountain pose can be translated to flying bird breath, in which students are asked to stand tall, arms at their sides, and feet hip-width apart. Imagining a free flying bird, they’re encouraged to pretend they’re flying, inhaling as they raise their arms, and exhaling as they lower them.
“Yoga and other mindfulness activities are a great example of the kind of responsive wraparound services that UnidosUS Affiliates provide for youth,” says Maria Moser, UnidosUS Senior Director of Teaching and Learning. “As we learn more about the complex relationship between trauma, stress, and brain development, it is increasingly clear that we cannot teach or reach children in crisis without addressing their physical and emotional needs in a holistic manner.”
The yoga instructors sourced in this article can be reached through the following means:
Rosa Maria Segura at InsightLA
Luciana Estevez at LA Luchi Foundation
Lucha at [email protected]