This is an interview with Jodi Weiner, Executive Director for the South Florida-based non-profit organization CoCo, which stands for Connection Coalition (formerly Yoga Gangsters). It provides free yoga to youth in jails, foster homes, and homeless shelters. You can learn more about CoCo yoga instructors and yoga programs here. CoCo was founded by Terri Cooper, who some folks call “the original yoga gangster.”
Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?
My children motivated me; I wanted to be an example my kids would be proud of. I wanted to show them that no matter who we are, we have a responsibility to step in and support those who have no community, support future leaders and innovators, and, I hope, to leave a legacy of love and giving.
How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
I’m motivated now by the children who have no voice, who are forgotten, judged, abused, or disempowered by the systems once thought to serve them. It is for the kids who crave the love they need to thrive, for the kids who have not heard the whispers of love, empowerment, and strength.
Is there a standout moment from your work with CoCo?
It was my first volunteer gig. I was kicking off our first six-week program with SOS Foster Village, and I was teaching my first class. The awakening in the eyes of the kids, the trust and opening I saw in their body language and the freedom that touched my heart after just one class, sticks with me, and drives me forward to share that awakening, that confirmation of Oneness. When you finally make eye contact with the kid who walked in with shut-down hunched shoulders too fearful to look up, it’s that moment, that awareness that these kids see you as safe. It’s truly an inspiring sensation that I hope to support others to find. Serving kids is a gift that needs to be felt to fully understand how much joy there can be in service.
What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?
The only thing I knew about the kids was they were in some form of crisis and needed the space to just be kids, to be silly, free to be who they are. There were no assumptions. Our certification program teaches that if we assume anything about the population, we are creating disconnect. This is the very opposite of the essence of yoga! Our training teaches how to create the connection and see past the story, to see the soul.
That said, I had assumptions about my own abilities and limitations. Midway through that first class, I realized the effortless flow of connection when we give from the heart with no expectations. I recall stopping and watching the kids smile, trust, laugh and feel genuine joy in that moment, and doing my best to not fully let go into the tears of gratitude. I embodied connection so easily and I won’t ever forget that visceral experience. I was plugged in deep and it was a beautiful confirmation I was on the right path.
What stood out for me ultimately is I felt an immediate connection, not a hierarchy. I knew I had the education of trauma and the “aha” of how to serve, but I was not prepared for the fearlessness and comfort I felt.
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?
When working with kids, I keep it playful, loose, and open to what is needed in the moment. I meet them where they are. I tap into the energy of the room and allow the messages and teaching to come through me. What comes out is exactly what the kids’ need, unscripted and from the heart. I stay mindful of what may trigger a reactive moment for the kids. It’s a delicate balance that requires a grounded awareness. Our teacher certification teaches the volunteers to provide empowering messages while playing with the asanas and breath of yoga.
When I teach adults, I teach to balance the chakras as opposed to controlled chaos with the kids. Empowerment is always part of my teachings regardless of the population. The “studio” version is a vibrant class and I always bring a little “gangster.” My yogi chatter is more about our energy body, and also about awareness of how we show up off the mat and into the lives we live in community.
What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?
I experience such fulfillment through service and the development of CoCo that I don’t always tend my “playtime.” To address that challenge I get down on the floor with my own kids and play with them, and spend time in nature! My kids remind me to be incredibly silly and laugh as much as I can. It keeps me motivated, for sure!
What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at-risk youth?
Have resources and a community to support you. Regardless of the population you are going to serve, prepare your own grounding energy first. When moments of challenge pop up during service you’re better equipped to move through them instead of avoiding them. Service-minded support is vital in situations like that.
What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?
My vision for the next decade of service is to watch it grow. Once that flame of service is lit in many of us, it’s hard to ignore. I will continue to ignite and stoke those fires with the awareness of the abundance service work brings to the community, and the world as a whole. I am incredibly grateful to Off the Mat Into the World for its vision of social activism.
Editor: Alice Trembour
Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved populations? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware if you’re interested in being interviewed for this series. And thanks for all that you do in the name of service!