May 9, 2011

To Om or Not To Om: Children’s Yoga in Public Schools – An Interview with Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga

While children’s yoga has been spreading and gaining acceptance throughout the country, there are still those who question its place in public schools. The conversation about spirituality and religion in yoga was intensified this winter with the NY Times publication of Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul. The following interview with Jennifer Cohen Harper, a recent guest of Where Is My Guru and guest writer on Ele, sheds some light on how children’s yoga can be taught in a way that respects both the secular nature of school and the traditions of the yoga practice.

Where Is My Guru is an online radio show and social media platform for the many expressions of effective leadership and yogic philosophies. Co-hosted by Diane Ferarro and Jessica Durivage, the show airs live every Friday at 11 am EST on www.herewomentalk.com

Jennifer Cohen Harper (pictured above) is the founder and director of Little Flower Yoga. Based in NY, Little Flower serves over 500 children a week with school based yoga programs, and trains teachers from all over the world to engage and inspire children with yoga and mindfulness practices. Jennifer leads the well respected Little Flower Yoga Teacher Training for Children program, is a faculty member at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, and frequently collaborates with other organizations to bring yoga for children to places as diverse as tent cities in Port-au-Prince and FAO Schwarz in Manhattan. Children love Jenn’s willingness to engage in mutual silliness, while also appreciating the genuine respect that she has for her students of all ages. Learn more about Jennifer and LFY at www.littlefloweryoga.com

Below is a transcription of the Where Is My Guru interview with Jenn. The full audio archive also featuring Sheetal Shah, Senior Director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) can be heard here.

Diane: Jenn, you’ve written an interesting article called “Teaching Yoga in Urban Schools” which was published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, a very well respected publication. I’d love for you to share with us your thoughts about bringing yoga to children. Today we’re talking about the origins of yoga, and what your experience is bringing yoga to a population that is a very precious population, what stigmas you might have come up against in bringing yoga to public schools, and what your general outlook is in teaching children.

Jenn: Teaching yoga to children is such an honor, but it’s a huge responsibility also, and I think that’s really the most important thing to remember. In light of your topic today, a very common question in the children’s yoga world is how we make sure that everyone in every community – whatever their religious tradition or cultural tradition – feels safe and welcome in our classrooms, and that’s a very important thing to always keep in mind when you’re working with other people’s children. One of the things that is most important, I think, is total and complete transparency. So, being really open with administrators, with parents; saying, this is what we’re doing; this is why we’re doing it; this is how we’re doing it, and if you have questions, I want to talk about them until you’re comfortable.

The teaching of yoga in schools – especially public schools – is really just in its infancy, and there are still parents out there who question whether it’s appropriate for their kids to be learning about yoga in school. We need to take those questions seriously. People have the right and the responsibility to ask questions about what their children are learning.

Diane: Absolutely. The public school system is a calculated process, isn’t it? Any school that lets anyone in to have access to their students – their children – they’re going to go through a pretty grueling process of examination.

Jenn: Absolutely – and they should. At Little Flower Yoga we are bringing yoga into schools in a way that is extremely functional. It’s very, very practical; it’s very tool-based. Our goal is really to help children overcome barriers to learning. You know, there are so many obstacles to learning that have nothing to do with academics – emotional obstacles, physical obstacles, mental and psychological obstacles to learning, and yoga just happens to be a really wonderful toolbox from which we can derive all of these practices and give our kids something to help them be the best version of themselves. What we’re doing has nothing to do with any religion and has everything to do with using all of the tools at our disposal to help our kids.

Jess: Jennifer, I have a question. I’ve been involved with a yoga program for kids in South Carolina – it’s called Yoga Kids – it’s in Charleston and Myrtle Beach – and we were teaching yoga to second grade kids. But they [the parents] were very much like, no ‘om-ing’; no ‘Namaste’, and, I feel very comfortable with meeting people, whether it’s a child or an adult, where they are on their path and feel very comfortable in that realm, but how would you deal with a parent that was was like, “I don’t care if you’re not going to ‘om’ or ‘Namaste'” [and they are distrustful of your intentions to teach yoga to their children.] If you’re setting up this parameter and you’re telling people this is what it is, how would you deal with a parent who is going to ask you those hard questions?

Jenn: It’s an important question. I think there are two different ways of thinking about this. One is, “Is this a parent who is truly interested in dialogue?” Because if it is a parent who is truly interested in dialogue, then you can have a very real conversation about yoga and how it means so many different things to so many different people. There are many different lineages and traditions of yoga, but kind of putting it in a box and saying one particular religion gave birth to this very big box is a simplification. If we look at the whole history of yoga, we can say that yoga’s a practice that has been influenced by many different religions; many different philosophers; many different teachers; many different cultures. When we look at that whole package, we can say, of course yoga’s been influenced by all of these different things, but we can also see it as an entity of its own that can have a conversation with different religions; a conversation with different traditions, but not be attached to any of them. If you have a parent who’s really interested in dialogue you can have that conversation.

If you have a parent who’s not very interested in dialogue, which has happened, then to me, the most important thing is to respect that parent and their right to make their own decisions for their child with compassion and with love and with an open heart. With an attitude that says our door is always open, and this is what our goals are for doing these things in this situation with your kid; you are always welcome to come back to the table and ask more questions if you think this is something that could be useful. I would never really push hard against a parent who didn’t want their child to participate.

Jess: I wanted to address one of our audience members on the chat line and one of our very loyal listeners every week, Petra, and she is asking, “Is not om-ing or not saying Namaste; would that be like not using French terms in ballet? Is it not a part of the art?” Petra home schools her children, and she’s an artist. So she definitely would be somebody who would be open to dialogue. How would you address that question?

Jenn: Well, I think in my own personal opinion, in a lot of ways, yes, those terms, they’re Sanskrit terms and they’re beautiful and they’re historic and they’re part of our traditions in yoga, and I love to use them with children and adults – I think they bring something to the table. That being said, I think the most important thing is to make sure everyone actually comes to the table, and if saying Namaste in a classroom is going to alienate someone; create a situation where a parent is going to pull their kid out of the class, or an entire school is going to choose not to have yoga, then is it really worth it. Because what we’re doing is helping our kids; that’s undeniable. The kids are benefiting from these practices. I don’t believe that they’re necessarily going to benefit any less if we don’t use the word om; if we don’t use the word Namaste.

I think that everybody comes to the practice in their own way, in their own space, and the beautiful thing about the yoga practice is, in my mind, it’s this cyclical path, and it doesn’t really matter what your point of entry is. If you stick with it, you’re going to get the benefits. And the trappings and the specific words and the specific terms, while I do think they lend a degree of reverence – it makes it feel a little more special when you’re part of a tradition – I don’t think that they are the heart and soul of what the yoga practice is doing for our kids.

Diane: And you’ve seen changes, right? You’ve watched changes occur in the kids?

Jenn: Absolutely. Changes in the kids and changes in the schools.

Diane: What are some of those changes that have given you that moment of, ‘This is intense; this is really working’?

Jenn: There’s so many. But one of the main things is just giving kids the power to recognize their emotions in a real way – recognize their emotions and giving them tools to help them make the decisions about how to respond to those emotions. That’s really what we’re focused on a lot, is this idea of emotional regulation – not in the sense of emotional suffocation – ignoring your emotions and controlling them — but in having the life skills to make your own decisions about how to act in the world, and that’s something that we don’t get taught a lot. Yoga helps to teach us those things. And we see that with our kids; we see them in situations where they’re frustrated or they’re struggling or they’re angry, and we’ve seen them close their eyes and practice a breathing technique, or if they’re nervous, really say, “What are some yoga poses that make me feel strong, that can give me energy?” and use those tools to help them interact with the world.

When you see that happening, it’s so inspiring because you know that if kids have the power to take input from the world and really make a decision about how they want to respond to that input and how they want to go forward, they have a lot of self determination in their lives. They get to control their lives instead of just being controlled by all of the circumstances of their situation.

Diane: Wow, that’s beautiful. Because what you’re saying – just to recap – is that you’re giving children the tools that they may not have otherwise access to, through a practice like yoga, which is a non- traditional part of Western society; Western culture – based in mindfulness, breath work, focus, concentration, being inside yourself for a moment with your breath, bringing your emotions down to a central place. That’s very intense, and beautiful, and all the more reason that we need people like you out there, Jenn, doing the work that you’re doing. What’s the best way that people can get in touch with you aside from your website, which is www.littlefloweryoga.com?

Jenn: The best way for people to get in touch with me is through email; my email address is [email protected]. I really am interested in having ongoing conversations with people of all different beliefs and all different faiths. If we’re going to have this conversation about where did yoga come from, I think it’s useful to expand that conversation to include all of the influences on yoga, so that we can have a really transparent, clear understanding of the fact that yoga has been shaped by the contributions of so many different elements. I think when conversations link the practice to one specific religion instead of taking the wider view, we have the potential to be limiting yoga’s capacity to be useful for a lot of people.

Jess: Jennifer, you have shed a whole lot of light and you’ve given an amazing introduction to the second half of our show, and we’re so grateful for your participation. I really would love to say, those benefits that the children are receiving, as adults we need those same things. It’s all about trying to get back to that place of the simple – how do we listen; how do we focus; how do we be mindful, and those are the things that we’re practicing in yoga classes all across America.

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