© 2018 by Smalltown Yoga.

The mission of this organization is to take the national common core standards for ELA and math in addition for Massachusetts state standards for physical education (PE) for students in elementary school (from k-6) and create a curriculum that incorporates yoga and mindfulness to satisfy these standards while also giving the benefit of a yoga and mindfulness practice to students.  The guidelines for instituting a PE curriculum in Massachusetts are incredibly vague and the outline for health, physical education, community issues, violence, and safety of students has not been updated since 1999.  The initial step of this organization is to target elementary age students in hopes of being able to detect, screen, and prevent students with developing anger, frustration, little coping skills, and tendencies towards violence at an early age.  The hope is to then target teenagers, grades in Massachusetts (7th-12th) with instituting a PE curriculum, that reinforces skills and techniques through yoga and mindfulness learned in elementary school, through age appropriate lesson plans.  The third target of this organization is to ideally train teachers in simple yoga and mindfulness techniques that could be used in order to build morale amongst classmates in addition to addressing behavioral concerns.  In an optimal school, there would be a room dedicated to practicing yoga and mindfulness techniques where students could be guided through practices to calm themselves when behavioral problems arise.  Through identification of the common core standards for ELA and math, teachers may also incorporate movement, yoga, and breathing techniques into lessons plans related to these subjects.  Movement while learning has been shone to increase retention of the material and engagement in the lessons.  

We need to start paying attention to our youth and work on prevention through a yoga and mindfulness curriculum incorporated into schools.  Preparation for mass shootings and lobbying for stricter gun laws are extremely important, but let's try to intervene before young individuals take to violence.  Prevention should always be first just as it is first in medicine.  It's agreed that it is it easier to prevent death or poor outcomes (low quality of life) through cancer screenings, which allow doctors to detect cancer that is in more benign phases, treat it, and eradicate it, instead of offering no cancer screenings and allowing such horrid infectious foreign bodies enter and metastasize through a relatively innocent and healthy individual?  This analogy upholds for preventing young individuals from letting their thoughts, frustrations, anger, tensions, anxieties, self-hatred, and hatred towards others to fertilize, implant, and result into a young individual who has metastasis of hatred, anger, violence, and frustration throughout their whole being.  We need to prevent this growth of hatred and tendency towards violence, screen for signs of emotional disturbances (as we do with screening for early signs of cancer) and prevent metastasis of hatred and violence through our youth.    

On March 24, the kids and families of March for our Lives took to the streets of Washington, DC to demand that their lives and safety become a priority in this country. The March was led out of frustration, sadness, and disappointment that young people in our country no longer feel safe attending school.  On March 24th, myself and a group of yoga instructors held a Yogaforourlives class in North Adams, Massachusetts.  The purpose was to bring together a community of individuals (who were not able to go to Washington) and gather for a class; 100 percent of the proceeds went to Everytown for Gun Safety, a non profit fighting for common-sense reforms to reduce gun violence.  The class was not just an ordinary yoga class.  With more than 150 people gathered for the event in a large renovated industrial mill, Greylock Works, in North Adams, people practice side by side in solidarity using yoga, the asanas and the pranyama, to create the most peaceful, soothing, accepting, and welcoming class I've ever attended or taught.  With young kids in the back of the room practicing their forms of yoga and older kids next to parents, friends, and other members of the community, the power of individuals of all ages coming together to practice yoga in such a soothing and powerful setting juxtaposed with the cause for bringing us together; to bring awareness to the violence that threatens our youth attending academic institutions to learn, created a truly magical experience.

We were able to raise a significant amount of money and make individuals in our small, rural community, where we all feel like we live in a bubble, take action and begin the fight against gun violence, mass shootings, and violence of any form in our schools today.  The harsh reality that these shootings can happen anywhere (look at Newtown, Connecticut) has made young elementary students, even in the bubble of Williamstown, fearful of school.  Since March 24th, there have been six more school shootings as defined by a shooting not just including the shooter harming him/herself, but involving a bystander, on an academic campus ages K-12 and/or university/college campuses.  This is simply unacceptable.  On March 31st, after teaching many yoga classes to kids of all ages, I opened my own yoga studio in Williamstown, Smalltown Yoga.  I teach all ages with the goal of targeting kids' frustrations, anxieties, anger, and tension, using this negative energy, and engaging in a powerful, meaningful, non-judgmental, calming yoga practice that includes movement, breathing, meditation, and mindfulness techniques.

When the shooting on Friday, May 18th, occurred in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I taught students ages 9-10 that afternoon.  They had all heard about the shooting one way or another due to mass media spreading the word even through the elementary school.  One student in particular was very upset by the shooting and said that she was fearful now of going to school, "who knows?"  "We have practice lockdowns a lot, but who knows?"  I tried to reassure her by telling her that the only real emergency "lockdown" I had heard of in this town was at a nearby school where they "locked down," because bears were roaming on the campus grounds.  

The truth of the matter is, I can't 100% reassure her that no violence would occur even in our small town.  This is a promise that I cannot make.  I simply told her and the rest of the class, "this is why we do yoga; when you feel angry, sad, or frustrated, we need to learn adaptive coping skills to calm ourselves and help to calm each other."  "Yoga," I said, "is something that you have with you no matter where you are; you don't need a mat to focus and stabilize yourself in tree pose or to take three lion breaths and release your anger.  We are in class to learn a skill that is lifelong and that we will modify and adapt to our needs at the present moment in our lives."  I stressed to the kids in the class that in my ideal society, starting in preschools, maintaining teaching and practice through high school, and offering yoga in colleges and universities, that yoga would be part of the curriculum in schools.  

Yoga is an over 5,000 year old practice that began as sedentary meditating and has slowly evolved into different types of asana practices, but all have in common bodily awareness in space (am I comfortable with how much space I have between myself and neighbor, can I spread out, do I feel free?), breathing (am I holding my breath and letting anger, tension, and frustration build until the breath comes out in an explosive/dangerous form?), and engaging the energy within oneself to flow or meditate without distractions and  thoughts. Yoga (meaning union) through its eight limbs identifies asana as only one of the limbs.  Pranyama (breathing) and withdrawal from the senses (outside distractions) are two others that I try to teach to my students.  Outside of the studio, we leave our “worries, distractions, judgments, thoughts”and enter into a realm where we can naturally flow and are only concerned about the most basic and simplest things; our body (being aware of any judgment and pushing the judgment aside), our breathing, and our presence in this moment.  

I teach children and adults.  While my studio is small, my message is big.  Yoga has the power to impact the way we live our lives, the decisions we make, and the actions we take.  I began yoga at a young age to complement my tennis training as a way to keep my mind focused.  I fell in love with the movement, breathing, and the sense of being away from the world. After yoga class and after svasana, I found myself in a state of calmness and I felt a certain amount of pride in my accomplishment of practicing yoga.  While I do understand that not everyon will have this same direct affinity to yoga, the techniques and many of the poses used in yoga are calming and soothing to almost all and can and should from a young age be incorporated into a “tool kit”of ways to calm and soothe oneself and/or another.  

I’ve taught students in inner city schools in New York City, autistic students in New Jersey, elementary students in a wealthy urban public school, along with preschool, elementary, high school, and college students in the Berkshires.  I have devoted a large portion of my time during medical school into researching the benefits of yoga in adults and children with mental health illnesses or emotional disturbances.  I wrote my masters thesis for elementary education on the benefits of yoga and physical activity in elementary age students.  In all of my research, I’ve always come to the conclusion that yoga has profound effects on an individual of any age or predisposition to help with focus, self-confidence, anger issues, depression, and alleviate symptoms encompassed in some anxiety disorders (such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD).  

After the Santa Fe shooting, I remember watching the news and listening to a parent whose child was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting and a parent whose child was killed in the Parkland shooting.  I could not agree more with what both parents said.  They stated that these shootings are not just about stricter gun control laws, although this definitely helps, but have to do with a growing underlying tendency for our youth to depend on violence to release frustrations, anger, or even to solve their problems. They expressed their disgust that the government has not done anything to strengthen gun control laws, despite the March 24th mass event, March for Our Lives, in Washington and in cities and towns all over the country and internationally.  

"Why do these kids reach for the gun?”  "Where is this violent tendency growing from and can we stop feeding into it?"  “What is going on in our childrens' lives and how much anger or self-hatred and hatred towards others do these young shooters have and why?  When did these violent young shooters become so disillusioned and broken off from peers, society, and the common good?  How did this happen?” Why aren't we helping our youth cope with such strong feelings that may come from intense bullying, disconnected home environments, mental illness, academic frustrations and stress, in healthy ways?  There were armed officers and the school in Santa Fe had been well prepared for a shooting, yet it still happened.  Arming more adults and authority is simply tantalizing youth, who are dealing with tremendous hatred and contemplating acts of violence, to find a way to take hold of the gun so that they become more empowered than the authorities and their teachers.  Why are we having a violent power struggle using guns? 

Instead of training and arming our teachers with more guns, believing that our youth needs to be stopped from shooting (this frankly states that our youth will have access to guns and some will continue to want to use them to harm themselves and others), why don’t we teach our kids healthy coping skills, calming techniques, and how to create a peaceful and welcoming community?  All three of these can be taught through teaching our children, at a young age, yoga.  Within a yoga class, students not only are attuned to their bodies in space, breathing, and their thoughts, but we do many games that include working with one another and trusting one another in various partner or multiple partner games and poses. We create a community; a working, peaceful community that should and hopefully by implementing yoga into the curriculum in schools, extend to the community outside of class.  

Just as many inner city schools in Baltimore have created a “meditation room”where students who are losing control over their emotions and behaviors or who have acted on such emotions are sent to calm down, I think that it is crucial that students who have emotional difficulties at one time or another be offered a space within the school where there is a yoga mat and somebody overseeing the student as the child is led through some relaxation postures or postures to release energy and anger.  Allowing a stressed and overwhelmed child a healthy and safe space to release such strong emotions is crucial to creating a healthy sense of self and self-esteem in our youth, who no longer rely on violence.   By yelling and forcing a student to “go to the principal’s office,” or students having the knowledge that their teacher has access to a gun, we are simply further ostracizing this already disturbed child from their peers and reinforcing strong negative emotions through our yelling (showing our frustration and that we cannot tolerate their emotions so they need to leave), and illustrating that the last resort is to use the gun.  As a result, the disturbed student feels further separated, alone, or further enraged, in addition to being afraid of his/her own mentor.  This is what creates a downward spiral that can result in violence.  

 

This is where gun control comes into the spotlight; children have the choice of how to take violent action.  In Europe, we see many more stabbing attacks or shootings that don’t involve military-like assault weapons.  In the United States, guns are much more accessible, prevalent, and catastrophic given the prevalence of AR-15 rifles and rifles that work in a similar way versus handguns.   There is no reason for any individual outside of military combat to have such powerful weapons.  This is not about the second amendment.  Whether you believe in “the right to bear arms”or not, there is no need to bear an AR-15 rifle and shoot multiple gunshots within seconds.

 

This organization serves to benefit our youth in the hope that as the children of today become the adults of tomorrow that these adults will dedicate themselves to instituting more protective gun laws, and upholding prevention strategies directed towards younger populations.  In the end, the mission of this organization is to target violence in all communities by first targeting our youngest population, so that all beings may feel safe and at peace and that each of us may once again not be fearful to go to school, work, to a large event, or on mass transportation.  If we teach compassion and kindness towards ourselves and towards others, there is hope.