Sonja Rzepski:When Sandy Hook [the 2012 massacre] happened, I heard it on the news and didn’t know how I was going to talk to my son. He was 10 at the time. I tried to emphasize what had happened when the teacher saved some children in the closet.
His first reaction was, “Ms. Lorraine is going to be so scared.” (That was his fifth grade teacher.) “You need to teach her and the other teachers yoga.” I said. “Wow, that’s a great idea, Sam,” and it really was a great idea because it felt like I could do something.
I started teaching the teachers at Museum Magnet School/ P.S.191 because I was used to adults. By June, they said, “Can you teach our kids?” I said, “I don’t know, let me see!” I went into a fifth grade class and started teaching them to the best of my ability. I was not dumbing it down in any way and they got it and they loved it!
We teach a straightforward 50-minute slow flow vinyasa with kids 8 and up; with the 4-7 year olds we do modify the practice to 25 minutes and it is more hatha based. I sometimes read a story to the little ones while they do savasana -- Zen Shorts is a favorite book of mine.
Now we’re in four schools – Museum Magnet, Mott Hall II, Bronx Tech International and Dos Puentes Elementary/P.S. 87 -- which doesn’t sound like a lot, but our flagship school, Mott Hall II, decided they wanted to have eight classes a week serving about 60 kids and they got a grant to make this happen which is really exciting. We’re going to track these kids over a three-year period and see how it affects their life.
KS: Can you give us an example of someone whose life has been made better by this work?
SR: I had this bully in class, I’ll call him Roy. He would throw the yoga blocks in class, he’d
purposely try to push the kids over if they were balancing...the teacher would constantly have to bring him out of the class and we’d constantly keep trying to get him back on the mat. At the end of class, I put a little essential oil in the kids’ hands when they’re in savasana so if they want they can smell it our rub it on their neck. One day, Roy said, “Miss Sonja, I noticed it takes you a lot of time when you have to go around and do that at the end, what if I helped you?” I couldn’t believe he was even asking! I thought, oh, I don’t know, is he going to throw it all over the room? Things were starting to get better [with him], so the next time, I show up, he said, “Can I hold the bottle?” I said, “No, but I can put it
by your mat...remember it doesn’t happen till the end.” And he paid attention and he did every asana and I started to notice at the end he was getting really nervous. I said, “Okay, I brought two bottles. I’m going to do half the room and you’re going to do half the room.” His hands were shaking he was so nervous, and he put a little bit of oil in everyone’s hand. He did a beautiful job! I said, “You have to come and sit next to me because you’re my assistant,” and his eyes got so big! He sat cross-legged next to me and he was watching them in savasana. I said, “Don’t they look happy? How do you feel about making them feel happy and relaxed?” He said, “Well, I don’t know how to do it so I might as well help them.” I tried not to cry! He said, “Can I do this next week?” and for the rest of the year he was my assistant.
KS: Who inspires you and why?
SR: Both my parents were in social work -- that probably has inspired my whole life. From a young age I was helping my dad in the field of migrant workers or my mom in a school for handicapped kids...it’s always been part of my life to serve. The idea of seva is inspiring -- we get out of our heads when we help others, [and] we actually help ourselves.
KS: How can someone participate or volunteer with your organization?
SR: Thank you for that question! If they're a certified yoga teacher with experience and interest in teaching either adults or children, or if they're a teacher that's interested in this kind of programming for their school...or if anyone wants to donate financially or help us administratively, all is welcome. They should contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org