03/05/2013 03:30 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

Yoga for Self-Regulation of At-Risk Children

This is an interview with Michelle Mitchell, who became passionate about yoga after her first class t12 years ago while in graduate school. She is the co-founder with Ellie Burke of YoKid, a non-profit yoga organization helping children from all socioeconomic backgrounds foster self-awareness. She's spent the past few years balancing time with her husband and three children -- 10 months, 2, and 4 years -- while bringing yoga to at-risk and underserved kids in the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. area.

Why are you teaching yoga to kids?

I love it, and I strongly believe in providing space and time for kids to just be themselves -- discovering new things about how their body, mind, and spirit are connected, how powerful that connection is, and how we all can appreciate that power in each other. Thankfully, YoKid continues to grow with the help of skilled volunteers who now bring yoga to more and more children. It's a good feeling to know that children are still being served and I don't have to be the one teaching every single class.

Nowadays everyone is teaching "kids' yoga." Please compare and contrast what you teach with the way it's being taught by more recently-trained teachers.

Making time to learn about the entirety of the practice, and teach all the eight limbs of yoga -- from the yamas and niyamas (ethical and spiritual observances of the eightfold path to help us develop the more profound qualities of our humanity) to meditation -- is what I believe sets apart what I teach and train others to teach and model in the classroom. It's definitely more than just asana, which may leave them feeling better, but not inspired.

When Ellie and I co-founded YoKid we wanted to be true to yoga and its philosophy as taught by our teachers. We based our work with kids on the Yoga Sutras (aphorisms) of Patanjali (Sutra 1:2): "Yoga is the settling of the mind into stillness." Now that I'm in a different phase of life, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra 1.33, "the mind gets still and calm when you do your best to be friendly to people who are happy, caring to people who are sad, happy to people who are good, and accepting of people who have done unkind things" (YoKid translation), guides my work with children. (Secretly, I wish that someone would buy billboard space and advertise this Sutra to adults too! Imagine seeing words like these while driving in rush-hour traffic!)

Is it an adult idea that kids should practice yoga?

It probably is, but I think they took the idea from watching kids. Babies practice yoga naturally. As we grow older we need an adult reminding us how to continue or to come back to our yoga practice that we so easily shift away from.

Yoga used to be practiced to prepare the body for meditation. What is it you are teaching kids? Is there anything spiritual about your teaching, or is it strictly about stretching and breathing?

I've worked with children from homes that vary in religious and spiritual beliefs. It's not something that we talk about or is even relevant for participation in the yoga class. There's the overarching goal, which is to get the kids to settle their minds into stillness. I've learned to provide an opportunity for that in every class. I try to tire out their bodies physically so they are comfortable being still at the end of class. If they fall into a meditative state, the environment is there to support that. If they are just quiet and resting, the environment of the class is able to support that, too.

My experience has taught me that parents want to be aware of activities their children are participating in and have a voice of approval for these activities. Occasionally, and for a variety of reasons, parents ask us a lot of questions about what it is that we are doing in our classes, and every once in awhile a parent will prefer their child not have a yoga class, without asking questions and understanding what we are doing. I encourage parents, such as the ones at the Encinitas Union School District in California, not to worry. However, I can appreciate the desire for an opt-out clause. School yoga is not about promoting Hinduism or any religious system of beliefs and practices.

Is there evidence that what you are teaching kids works?

There sure is! YoKid completed its first program study in the spring of 2011 and saw encouraging results. We found that participants in the program showed improvement in the following areas: physical flexibility, less angry, more relaxed, and ability to concentrate. What was most interesting was that these improvements were made after just three weeks of participating in the program (one class/week). Anecdotally, the response has been very positive, which is also encouraging. One of my favorite quotes is from a student in one of our tougher communities who said, "Yoga taught me to find peace when everything else around me was chaotic."

There are also a growing number of studies and data being collected across the country that support the good that yoga brings to improve well-being, concentration, and anger control in children, especially when there are problems at home.

What continues to motivate you?

The team of volunteer teachers and the YoKid team who work tirelessly to bring yoga to more children in the metropolitan D.C. area are wonderful motivators. I'm also motivated by the idea of helping to bring about a conscious, caring community of young people. The more children who are exposed to yoga, the greater the chance we have of becoming a more aware, conscious society. That said, YoKid continues to grow with the help of skilled volunteers who now bring yoga to more and more children. It's a good feeling to know that children are still being served, and I don't have to be the one teaching every single class.

I'm interested in your thoughts on service, and the types of service that come from a yoga practice. What kind of service opportunity has your yoga practice offered you in Washington, D.C.?

Yoga has taught me that service -- giving back -- is important. However, you've got to be aware of the service and type of giving back that is appropriate for a particular person in his or her stage of life. I think it's important for everyone to give in ways that are meaningful and make sense for them. It's up to them to hone in on how they can best contribute to our community, and lend a hand to those in need in the best way that you know how to do. This can range from a monetary donation to an in-kind donation to getting out there and doing the work oneself. The D.C. yoga activist community, both individuals and studios, does an amazing job of communicating area service opportunities and the variety of ways that you can give on any given day.

What's your ideal vision for yoga with the kids you are trying to serve? What would you like to see happen?

I would like kids to understand that they can do yoga anytime, anywhere, no matter how old they are. I also hope that yoga practice empowers them physically, mentally, and emotionally to be the best version of themselves that they are capable of being at any given moment. There are so many facets to the practice that there's definitely something that each child can identify with, internalize, and take with them off the mat.

What motivated you to start YoKid? Where were you in your life at the time?

I was working as a school counselor in northern Virginia when I enrolled in a yoga teacher training, where I met Ellie Burke, cofounder of YoKid. As we completed our training we needed folks to practice on, and we thought that the kids at our school would be the ideal students. After much red tape from the school, we were allowed to work with a group of at-risk middle-school children. Given the situations that these children find themselves in, it was amazing to see growth and less stress after just a few classes. We were so excited about what was happening that we thought it would be great if more at-risk and under-served children could practice yoga.

Frankly, one of the reasons I was interested in teaching was to offset the expense of taking classes! Our guess was that if we couldn't afford yoga, there was no way that a child from a poor family would ever have the opportunity to learn yoga. So on a spring day in 2006, YoKid was born. It has led me not only to serve as a yoga teacher to school-aged children, but also as a teacher-trainer to those interested in learning how to teach yoga to children.

What other organizations do you work with?

I also teach part-time at GW University in Washington, D.C. and Radiance Yoga Studio in Alexandria, Va.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email 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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