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Yoga: How We Serve Inner-City Schoolchildren

Debbie Cohen started teaching yoga in 1996 and began working with children in schools in 2002. She later went on to found the Core Yoga in Schools Program to serve Boston public schools.
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This is an interview with Debbie Cohen, who started teaching yoga in 1996 and began working with children in schools in 2002. In 2008 she began working with researchers studying the effects of yoga on children in schools because, by attaching herself to a research effort, she could possibly fund her teaching yoga in inner-city schools. Upon the death of one of her yoga students, noted journalist Susan E. Tifft (with support and encouragement from others in Susan's yoga class), Debbie founded what is now called the Core Yoga in Schools Program to serve Boston public schools.

Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Before I was trained to teach yoga, my yoga teacher came to teach at the high school where I was an English teacher, which sparked my imagination and interest. I really enjoy teaching yoga to children in the Boston public schools. We have fun together, and I appreciate the opportunity to get to know them this way. This work is simply what I enjoy doing and that is motivation enough for me.

Is there a standout moment from your work with tough schools in Boston?

That moment is not a flattering one. It was during my first year teaching yoga at Brighton High School. I had not been teaching at Brighton High School consistently throughout the school year, so the momentum was difficult to establish. The students were not terribly interested, and there was one day where almost none of the students were participating. If I had stopped at the worst moment, it would have been an absolute wash. The funny thing was that I did not mind. Nothing bothered me. I kept going and the tide changed. More students started to participate and the uncomfortable moment passed.

I felt that day and do feel generally like nothing bothers me when I am teaching yoga to children in the Boston public schools. I am at my best regardless of the circumstances. On this same day, I was stuck in terrible traffic after class. Again, it did not bother me, and this was a welcome surprise.

What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if at all, have those assumptions changed?

I assumed that the schools would not want to pay for yoga programs. But I've been contracted by Boston public schools to train teachers twice now, and also to design materials for and train teachers for a research study measuring the effects of classroom teachers' teaching yoga-based relaxation techniques to students.

I assumed that these students would have a lot of stress in their lives and that they would have difficulty managing their attention. I have found this to be true. In my experience, when stress levels are high, high school students are more likely to disengage. They might shut down completely; younger students have more difficulty reigning in their energy to focus on the class activity.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio and what are the reasons for these differences?

These students love music and they love to dance, so what has worked for me is dancing the yoga. I find that when the music is a main event and I talk minimally, when we coordinate breathing and movement with the music, the students have fun and the participation level is much higher. I also have students practice pranayama or slow deep breathing in rhythm to a song with a slow, steady beat. This way, more students seem willing to try.

In order to learn to dance the yoga, to move in and out of poses and to breathe in time with the music, I attended African dance class and a training in "Let Your Yoga Dance" at Kripalu Yoga Center. Finally, for support in attaining greater clarity with fewer words, I contracted a graphic designer to develop a series of yoga pose posters and the high school students create posters which outline the curriculum, "Do no harm," or "Tell it like it is," or "Use your energy wisely."

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

There were two: first, overcoming reluctance to fundraise to support the work. I simply moved forward anyway. Second, because the high school population seems unaccustomed to focusing all of their attention on one class-wide activity for a full period, I developed the Core Yoga in Schools manuals K-5 and 6-12 with curricula so I was clear on the progression of the course. The grade 6-12 lessons are based on the yamas and niyamas. For the longer high school classes, I included a protocol for starting class that I call "On My Mind," in which students write down in their journals anything that is on their minds. Then we share, snapping our fingers in between shares so that no one reacts or responds to anything said.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

You don't have to be good at it. Just maintain the commitment to teaching the students and maintain equanimity no matter what. Have fun with the students and do not take the yoga or yourself too seriously.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of service yoga in America in the next decade?

My only hope is that those who participate enjoy themselves.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

I now feel I really understand karma yoga as the freedom that comes from giving 100 percent and not minding how it goes, being all right with whatever happens, more than all right. This has been helpful in all aspects of my life. And however dedicated I am to my own practice of meditation and hatha yoga, I take myself and my yoga practice far less seriously, thanks to my work with this population.

What are some of your greatest hopes for the development of a service yoga community?

That everyone serve with an open heart.

What other organizations do you admire?

Baba Muktananda Siddha yoga ashram in South Fallsburg, N.Y., which runs completely on service

Coming Soon:

Yoga Service Resource Guide for teachers who desire to work with populations such as military veterans, trauma survivors, people who are homeless, those who abuse substances and alcohol, inmates, people with chronic conditions, and more.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email me at if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

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