I first met Jennifer Cohen Harper at a Yoga Service Council meeting at the Omega Institute. She is the founder and director of Little Flower Yoga, a national organization based in New York, and The School Yoga Project, which brings yoga and mindfulness to schools nationwide. She is the vice president of the Yoga Service Council and an active member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She leads a well-respected children's yoga and mindfulness teacher certification program, provides therapeutic yoga classes to children and families, and frequently collaborates with other organizations to bring yoga and mindfulness to places as diverse as tent cities in Port au Prince, Haiti, Sanctuary for Families in NY, and the Bronx Zoo. Her work has been featured in the NY Times and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is the author of "Little Flower Yoga for Kids: A Yoga and Mindfulness Program to Help Your Child Improve Attention and Emotional Balance." Little Flower Yoga offers yoga and mindfulness to children and teachers in a way that connects meaningfully with their everyday life, and gives them tools to build resilience, make good choices, and find emotional balance.
Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?
My initial motivation came from a sense of gratitude for how yoga helped me during some of the most challenging times in my own life, combined with a desire to be useful. But now sharing yoga is something that draws me closer to other people in a nourishing and personally enriching way. Much of my current motivation is about connection and relationship. Yoga is the framework for sharing a way of living in the world. When I'm fully immersed in this work, I feel like I'm the best version of myself, and my heart is most open. That's a really nice space to live in.
How is yoga effective in improving attention and emotional balance in children?
Often these two challenges are addressed with different approaches, but we know that the capacity to pay attention is directly tied to emotional balance. Kids have to feel good to access the part of themselves that is capable of focus and good decision-making. Yoga improves both of these in a way that is fundamentally appealing to children--through their bodies and through direct experience.
In my work, I emphasize skill building rather then diagnosis and treatment. Kids are freed from the self-doubt that often comes with labeling, while still getting the support they need. Yoga is low-cost, requires little equipment, and has only healthy side effects. Because yoga is a lifelong skill, rather than an intervention, children can build resilience before challenges occur.
What should educators know about yoga and mindfulness practices? Parents?
That the most important thing they can offer children is their own mindfully aware attention. A lot of what kids need in order to pay attention is to feel seen, accepted, and loved. A personal practice can make us more capable of offering this even if we aren't teaching yoga to kids directly.
That being said, sharing yoga with children doesn't have to be intimidating. I wrote my book in the expectation that the reader has no yoga experience. I always encourage personal practice, but don't want adults to feel like they have to be an expert in order to share yoga with kids.
Is there an evidence base for your program in particular?
In developing the program, we relied on existing research about how children develop, learn, grow, and heal. Currently, we're working with a researcher who is evaluating our curriculum and implementation based on data collected from 24 schools and 21 teachers over 18 months. Preliminary results have been positive and we are looking forward to his full report. It's surprising how much an outside perspective can change even the questions you are asking yourself!
What is the greatest challenge you face in bringing therapeutic yoga to children and families?
Five years ago, I might have said it was overcoming institutional skepticism in schools and among parents, but this has changed tremendously. Now, from the perspective of my role at LFY, our toughest barrier is finding enough great teachers! Schools want the programming, but this is hard work. It requires training, practice, preparation, reflection, and a wide variety of skills that aren't always easy to find in one person.
Another major challenge is finding ways to help kids integrate the practices into their lives. It's really important that adults support and reinforce the work. It's heartbreaking to see a child make great strides in class, and then hear about or see him being sort of beaten down by others. This happens easily, and often by well-meaning people. Getting parents and teachers invested in the work, familiar with strategies that make behavior management more compassionate and respectful, and ultimately involved enough to remind the child of tools he has learned during difficult moments, is the ultimate goal.
What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?
My work with the Yoga Service Council has given me a broad perspective on all the good work being done in this field, and a lot of opportunity to reflect on what the possibilities are. I think one important thing to recognize and respond to is that, as yoga becomes more widely accepted, an increasingly diverse body of students will be appearing in all yoga classes, not just specialty classes. I think it's a responsibility of our community to make sure that yoga teacher trainings prepare their graduates to teach in a way that is inclusive, respectful, and sensitive, as you never know who is going to walk into class on any given day.
Also, there is so much potential in empowering people in the helping professions to share the most effective practices directly with their clients, students, and patients. This is already happening in some places. I teach staff development workshops at schools, and even teachers who don't have any yoga experience are amazed at how effective easy-to-teach activities are for their students. Finding balance between longer, more in-depth classes with yoga teachers, and simple daily practice reinforced by those who work most directly and most often with the students or clients is a worthy and achievable goal. The Yoga Service Conference is one place where teachers, social workers, counselors, health care providers, and others can come to learn these tools, and develop their own personal practice. The conference will be offered at the Omega Institute this spring, May 16-18, 2014. I know that each year when I am surrounded by the people the conference draws, the energy is so big yet so focused that I feel certain there is nothing this community can't accomplish in a decade.
Editor: Alice Trembour
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