Published June 01, 2012
Abby Wills practically has me at hello. It’s a no-brainer. She is about mindfulness and yoga and how it can help our youth. But as we talk in a recent phone interview, I feel myself sitting up straighter and listening more intently when the stories start coming.
She tells me of the 9-year-old whose mother was prone to yelling. The child would yell back and the situation would quickly escalate. Then one day the child came to yoga with another parent in her community. Now, a few years into it, she goes into the bathroom and does some yoga poses when her mother starts yelling. Then, when feeling calm, she opens the door and talks to her mother.
Or there’s the bi-racial young woman who was being targeted by Latino and African-American gangs in her Los Angeles neighborhood because she is both. She rarely went outside over fear of being hassled and harassed. Enter yoga and a whole lot of mountain pose; learning how to be in the world with upright, confident energy to the point where it feels like protection. Now she walks her neighborhood like she belongs there and is not as frequently targeted.
“Yoga has that effect,” Wills tells me. “We utilize the whole being – mind, body, spirit – and that translates from the mat to the community.”
So many of us know this because we practice yoga and reap its benefits. But for Wills it’s different, deeper.
Co-founder and program director of Shanti Generation, which produces “educational media experiences that bring ancient and modern practices to youth in relevant, innovative formats”, Wills has gone from feeling misplaced as a youth and being bullied and pointedly telling herself at age 12 that “life is not about what everybody thinks of you” to having a sense of mission in adulthood. With some heavy things going on around her in childhood, she realizes in retrospect it would have been tremendously helpful to have the coping skills that yoga fosters.
“Imagine something like that being available to me at every moment,” she says. “And free.”
It was in college that she found herself drawn to philosophy and Eastern thought and it was on a return trip from an ashram in India in her early 20s when it hit her that this was her purpose. Now, at 37, living in California, Wills is steeped in experience, passion and knowledge on the topic of yoga for young people (with a focus on ages 7-16). Using her social justice and developmental education at Pacific Oaks College (Pasadena, Calif.) and more than 10 years of teaching, she has helped create a program on DVD that makes it easy for “non-yoga” people to use it in the classroom.
Mindful that instances of bullying are up and that these days teachers are often paying for resources from their own pockets, Shanti Generation has set up a “buy one, give one” program to get yoga to as many children as possible. And where Wills and Shanti Generation leave off, Leah Kalish and Move With Me Action Adventures come in with a focus on yoga for children ages 3-7 (and their own “buy one, give one” opportunity).
“I felt like instead of trying to train more people, we needed to give parents and teachers the resources they need,” Kalish tells me in our recent interview.
This is a woman who carved out a career in acting before thinking it was time to “use my time and energy to grow in the world.” Kalish, a trainer, writer and speaker who studied human development at Pacific Oaks, created “many successful products and curricula for other companies such as Gaiam, Barefoot Books, Imaginazium and Yoga Ed.” Move With Me came from a desire to venture into entrepreneurship, a change which she finds humbling.
Like Wills, Kalish has stories. Parents in South Central Los Angeles who come home from work, don’t allow the kids out after dark and get right down to dinner and homework. The next day it starts all over again. Since there’s usually TV time in there anyway, Kalish figures 30 minutes of it can be her DVD and some active, focused play.
“They can learn from the self-regulation skills that we’ve made the characters do,” she says. “When they’re angry or frustrated or upset, I want to give them ways to make their body and mind feel better. They’ll be able to say, ‘I do this and I can calm down, redirect myself.’”
Wills has a similar take targeting the older kids.
“Ask a kid, ‘Look in your life. Where do you need to be more centered and balanced?’” she says. “I find motivation is very important for them. They still need to create that context for themselves. Otherwise [the yoga] is just exercise.”
She knows it isn’t. Its benefits have brought her here, advocating for its wider usage to help with bullying, obesity, ADHD, and autism.
Ultimately, though, to Wills the overarching message for everyone, young and old, is simple: “To live well and to live clear.”
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.