Chandra 'Jo' Sgammato worked in publishing for seventeen years and was the author of several successful books - but it didn’t feel like quite enough. Then one day changed everything. 9/11. Her family was terrified, particularly her nephew who couldn’t find his mother and he didn’t know if she was OK.
Sgammato was too, but that became her turning point, inspiring her to reach out to kids, many of whom were traumatized by the disaster, and showed them that in spite of what was going on around them, they could find some peace inside themselves.
The classes she gave evolved into founding the Yoga for School program at Integral Yoga Institute, where they not only bring yoga into schools; but invite high school students from James Baldwin HS to the Institute. Students get gym and health class credit for delving deep into yoga, and finding out first hand what it means to be a yogi.
Recently YogaCity NYC's Dar Dowling caught up with Chandra to learn more about her journey, and the Yoga for School program. Discovering along the way that her name means the moon or shinning in Sanskrit, and why it suits her to a tee.
Dar Dowling:How did you get involved in yoga?
Chandra 'Jo' Sgammato: I discovered transcendental meditation (TM) in college, and I've meditated every day since. It changed my life, as did finding hatha yoga shortly afterwards. Meditation and yoga helped me deal with the frustration and difficulty I felt in school. They showed me that it was possible to feel good.
During the 80's and early 90's I worked in publishing, writing, editing and marketing books. It was some of the most exciting times in publishing. I wrote books – an exercise book with Marjorie Jaffe, who owns Back in Shape here in NYC, and biographies on country western stars, including Leann Rimes and Garth Brooks.
It was while writing the last two books that I decided to become a yoga teacher, and it was a life-changing decision. In the 80's I took some classes at Integral Yoga, but it wasn’t until the mid '90's that I discovered there was more to yoga than just poses. After reading the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda, I began to feel that IYI was my spiritual home. I so admired the teachers at Integral, and was really drawn to teaching, so I enrolled in the IYI teacher training program.
It was actually while promoting my book on Garth Brooks, when I got the call from Kali Morse offering me a full time job at IYI, where I was already working in reception. It was fork in the road, one where I asked myself if I wanted to keep making a big deal about myself or yoga – and I picked yoga.
DD: What was the inspiration for Yoga for School?
CJS: At first I started working with Integral's Yoga At Work program. Since I had recently left the corporate world, it was a good fit. During 9/11 my nephew was terrified, and afterwards I started hearing how traumatized other young children were – not wanting to go to school and feeling afraid, so I thought why not try to bring yoga to schools? I felt that it would help them find some peace, and get a sense of control over their lives.
At first we brought yoga to elementary students, and made the classes as close to classic Integral yoga classes as we could, including poses, breathing, meditation and deep relaxation. The kids experienced the same kind of peace, joy and love that adults do while in yoga class – they really loved it. Showing them that they had that kind of peace inside themselves made a very real change.
Later we got a grant to bring free classes to middle school kids. Middle school is the point in a child’s development when they usually decide they love or hate sports. The program provided a non-competitive option that they could all do, opening the door to discovering body awareness, and experiencing confidence and peace.
DD:While you still bring classes to schools, you're are doing something very different with the high school students by actually holding classes at IYI, rather than their high school. How did that come about?
CJS: Rehana Ali, a social worker at James Baldwin High School, had taken yoga and experienced its positive affects, and wanted her students to experience them too. She approached me about bringing the kids to IYI for an after school yoga classes, and since New York State grants gym credit for yoga, I loved the idea, and we started in 2006.
It was not my intention to be their yoga teacher but I taught the first few weeks and then I was hooked. It was then that I realized I had found my calling as a yoga teacher. I loved teaching these kids. They were so much like how I was in high school, struggling, out of touch with their bodies, rebellious, angry and not really into the gym.
I watched them blossom and become angels, as they learned the asanas, experienced deep relaxation, and learned to breath.
DD: Does the program offer more than yoga classes to the students?
CJS: Yes, those early classes went so well that the school's principle wanted to make it a full course each semester, meeting four mornings a week. So I sat down to create a curriculum that included yoga, as well as a self development component. We started offering this program in 2007, and have been doing it ever since. That the program takes place in the IYI building, with its quiet atmosphere, is a huge part of what makes it work.
Three days a week we have yoga classes, and one day a week we have a workshop, teaching yoga philosophy, nutrition, the yogic diet, health, and the yama and niyama. It's basically an immersion in yoga and very similar to the workshops we include in our teacher trainings. We also take the kids on an overnight retreat to Ananda Ashram in Monroe. Over the course of the semester the kids create sangha, coming to care about and trust each other, which they take out into the world with them.
DD: On a personal level what has being involved with Yoga for School meant to you?
CJS: It means so much to me to give to these student what I wish I had been given in high school. Back then if I had been exposed to yoga I would have had a way to feel better about myself, and perhaps been less rebellious and angry.
I am these kids, and they are me. I have seen them bring the peace they experience from yoga back to school, make changes in their family dynamics, begin eating a healthier diet, and some even go home and teach yoga poses and meditation to their families.
I am so very grateful that James Baldwin High School trusts Integral Yoga with their kids. It means the world to everyone at IYI.