JC: What were your first teaching experiences like? The journey of Corey Henderson is one that cannot fail to move and inspire you. A single father at 16, he fell for yoga at a party on Dec. 31, 1999, and went on to practice Bikram, Hatha, and vinyasa at Yoga People before becoming certified there.
Shortly tthereafter, he tragically lost his son to gun violence. In the face of heartbreak, Corey was more resolved than ever to bring yoga and enlightenment to those who needed it, especially at-risk youth. He sat down with Jim Catapano to discuss his yoga beginnings, philosophy and new studio, Urban Asanas in Crown Heights.
Jim Catapano: Can you tell me about your experiences as a student?
Corey Henderson: I practiced Bikram for 5 years, 5 days a week, sometimes 3 hours a day. I think Bikram...and I say this in the nicest way, with no negativity attached...has this cult-like feeling to it. So when you start to practice it there’s something that takes over you and you feel like you need to be there almost every day.
JC: How did you decide to become a teacher?
CH: My teacher, Anita Ruderman, said, “Corey, one of the reasons why I’ve asked you to consider this is because you have one the biggest hearts. You just exude this goodness, and that’s what you need more than anything to teach.” It was such a sweet thing to hear. I immediately thought of all the help that yoga had given me through all the years, and all the hard things I had been through. I felt if I could just touch one person with this enlightenment, then maybe this is part of my journey. So I jumped in full steam ahead.
JC: What was the training like?
CH: My life wasn’t able to stop for the teacher training. I’m also a stylist, and I divide my time between Boston and New York. The training was very intense in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. For 8 months you had mandatory practice every day.
The very first day we had to get up and teach a class. When I got up, nothing came out of my mouth. Sweat came pouring out of me. I went home that night after the 12- hour day, and I cried. I was thinking, “What have I gotten myself into? I’ll never be able to see this through.” The next day we sat in a circle, and the teacher, Alma Largey, asked us what our energy was like when we went home. I said, “I was an open wound.” “ And one of the girls said, “Corey, I don’t really see you as that. I see you as a heartfelt person who feels.” And from that point on, all I could see was moving forward.
JC: What were your first teaching experiences like?
CH: My first class was at 6:30 in the morning at Yoga People! And I did that because one of the students who were certified along with me had doubts about my ability., "Oh Corey, you're not a rock star, you could never do this, you could never do that." And I said, "Wow, for someone who only knows my first and last name, you've got quite an assessment of me!" So because of that, I took on the challenge of the 6:30 class. It was hot power vVinyasa and I was taken aback by how many people were coming to that class.
JC: Who is your favorite teacher?
CH: Jyll-Hubbard Salk! Always. She’s militant but motherly. She will kick your backside, but she’ll cradle you, hold you through the whole thing. She pushes you, but her voice is this constant song that lets you know that it’s going to be ok.
JC: How did you get involved in teaching at-risk kids?
CH: I was a very young father and I didn’t think I was the best listener. I felt I listened from a place of judgment, of pre-conceived notions, and “solution, solution.” I wanted to be a better listener to my son, and to offer him a sense of enlightenment; because it’s something I needed for myself. He and I used to practice a lot.
In 2006, I lost my son to gunfire. And that’s what propelled me to go into schools to talk, to go into juvenile facilities and teach there. These kids are so special, they’re so gifted. They just need the shoulder to lean on, the heart to open up to, and the ear to listen. And they have a greater chance at being successful within themselves, if they can look at themselves and be happy with what they see, and find that self-love, self-confidence and self-assurance, even though they may not have been born into it. Just being able to let them know that there’s light, and they are that light.
Children are our harvest and our new beginning. And we really have to find a way to reach out to them now before they get lost in all the madness out there. Or we’ll have a bunch of kids who don’t care enough for themselves to care for others. My son was a victim of that. And that’s what jolted me into this other place, and made me realize I was a product of love: distribute first, and then receive. And part of that was giving to these kids unconditionally. They’ve heard my own story and seen my own pain, and it’s very similar to what they’ve already lived through.
JC: What’s one of the most emotional moments you’ve had as a teacher?
CH: At The Invictus Preparatory Charter School, we have to do a showcase twice a year. We choreograph these 15-minute “performances.” I had 20 students, and the first rehearsal went horribly. I remember saying , “If I can ask anything of any of you, it would be to just be present. Just get on the stage, feed on the vibe of the next person, and just be there.”
And when it was our time to go up, from beginning to end they were just amazing. I broke them into groups, and when we got to the inversion group the audience just roared, they clapped so loud. And as we closed and went into our “Oms”—and mind you, I can only do one Om or the students break into hysterics—all of the sudden I heard the whole audience Oming with us. It was such a loud, beautiful empowering moment. And I looked at my students and said, “Do you get it? Do you see how present you’re able to be?” And they were all so happy, excited and proud of themselves.