Jodi Weiner: Showing Up For At-Risk Youth

jodi-weiner-3This is an interview with Jodi Weiner, Executive Director for the South Florida-based non-profit organization CoCo, which stands for Connection Coalition (formerly Yoga Gangsters). It provides free yoga to youth in jails, foster homes, and homeless shelters. You can learn more about CoCo yoga instructors and yoga programs here. CoCo was founded by Terri Cooper, who some folks call “the original yoga gangster.”

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

My children motivated me; I wanted to be an example my kids would be proud of. I wanted to show them that no matter who we are, we have a responsibility to step in and support those who have no community, support future leaders and innovators, and, I hope, to leave a legacy of love and giving.

How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

I’m motivated now by the children who have no voice, who are forgotten, judged, abused, or disempowered by the systems once thought to serve them. It is for the kids who crave the love they need to thrive, for the kids who have not heard the whispers of love, empowerment, and strength.

Is there a standout moment from your work with CoCo?

It was my first volunteer gig. I was kicking off our first six-week program with SOS Foster Village, and I was teaching my first class. The awakening in the eyes of the kids, the trust and opening I saw in their body language and the freedom that touched my heart after just one class, sticks with me, and drives me forward to share that awakening, that confirmation of Oneness. When you finally make eye contact with the kid who walked in with shut-down hunched shoulders too fearful to look up, it’s that moment, that awareness that these kids see you as safe. It’s truly an inspiring sensation that I hope to support others to find. Serving kids is a gift that needs to be felt to fully understand how much joy there can be in service.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

The only thing I knew about the kids was they were in some form of crisis and needed the space to just be kids, to be silly, free to be who they are. There were no assumptions. Our certification program teaches that if we assume anything about the population, we are creating disconnect. This is the very opposite of the essence of yoga! Our training teaches how to create the connection and see past the story, to see the soul.

That said, I had assumptions about my own abilities and limitations. Midway through that first class, I realized the effortless flow of connection when we give from the heart with no expectations. I recall stopping and watching the kids smile, trust, laugh and feel genuine joy in that moment, and doing my best to not fully let go into the tears of gratitude. I embodied connection so easily and I won’t ever forget that visceral experience. I was plugged in deep and it was a beautiful confirmation I was on the right path.

What stood out for me ultimately is I felt an immediate connection, not a hierarchy. I knew I had the education of trauma and the “aha” of how to serve, but I was not prepared for the fearlessness and comfort I felt.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

When working with kids, I keep it playful, loose, and open to what is needed in the moment. I meet them where they are. I tap into the energy of the room and allow the messages and teaching to come through me. What comes out is exactly what the kids’ need, unscripted and from the heart. I stay mindful of what may trigger a reactive moment for the kids. It’s a delicate balance that requires a grounded awareness. Our teacher certification teaches the volunteers to provide empowering messages while playing with the asanas and breath of yoga.

When I teach adults, I teach to balance the chakras as opposed to controlled chaos with the kids. Empowerment is always part of my teachings regardless of the population. The “studio” version is a vibrant class and I always bring a little “gangster.” My yogi chatter is more about our energy body, and also about awareness of how we show up off the mat and into the lives we live in community.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

I experience such fulfillment through service and the development of CoCo that I don’t always tend my “playtime.” To address that challenge I get down on the floor with my own kids and play with them, and spend time in nature! My kids remind me to be incredibly silly and laugh as much as I can. It keeps me motivated, for sure!

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach at-risk youth?

Have resources and a community to support you. Regardless of the population you are going to serve, prepare your own grounding energy first. When moments of challenge pop up during service you’re better equipped to move through them instead of avoiding them. Service-minded support is vital in situations like that.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of “service yoga” in America in the next decade?

My vision for the next decade of service is to watch it grow. Once that flame of service is lit in many of us, it’s hard to ignore. I will continue to ignite and stoke those fires with the awareness of the abundance service work brings to the community, and the world as a whole. I am incredibly grateful to Off the Mat Into the World for its vision of social activism.


Join us in sharing the gift of yoga with those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Julie Fernandez: How We Serve Those Suffering Domestic Violence

Julie FernandezThis is an interview with Julie Fernandez, who knew before her yoga teacher training was over that she wanted to bring healing to young people through yoga. Through a few non-profit organizations in New York City, she started working with at-risk teenage girls and youth in trauma. Julie went on to work with the nonprofit Exhale to Inhale (ETI), teaching yoga at domestic violence shelters to empower women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Last year she moved to California and began working with a psychiatrist, helping to bring healing to his patients through breath work and yoga. She serves as ETI’s Program Manager for Southern California.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you?

I was initially motivated to do this work when I saw the impact it had on me, a survivor of sexual assault, and I could no longer bear the idea of children and youth suffering in the ways that I did. I spent my entire adolescence suffering from depression, complex trauma, abuse, and eating disorders, as well as the accompaniments, including shame, self-loathing, and feeling stuck in a body that I felt could not ever serve me. I decided I certainly had to try to relieve some of the pain of hurting children and youth, and provide a small piece of hope.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?

To see a sense of peace and calm on the student’s faces and body language. To see them believe in themselves again and find hope for their own recovery and healing. When students return, that’s a clear sign that things are shifting for them.

What are some of the things your students have taught you?

My students have taught me resiliency. When they walk through the door, they exhibit courage, strength, and willingness. They are a constant reminder of our capacity to overcome our challenges.

In what ways do you think yoga addresses some of the societal factors at play in the institution or population you work with?

Unfortunately, domestic violence survivors are not only left with physical and emotional damage, but are also faced with a plethora of societal challenges. These include socio-economic disadvantages, poor housing, discrimination, and a lack of social support, which often leads to more mental and physical health issues. Yoga has been proven to reduce many of the symptoms of trauma, including anxiety and depression, and to help people become healthier and stronger.

What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness, and greater social change?

Mindfulness allows us to be fully present and bring awareness to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as to what is happening outside our bodies all around us. So much about yoga is learning how to respond, rather than react; it teaches us to pause and bring awareness to any situation. Mindfulness increases our capacity to empathize and connect with others; this connection is the foundation of social change.

What advice would you give to someone who is going to teach in the shelters in which you work? What would be the most important thing for them to carry?

My advice for anyone who is going to teach in shelters or communities of trauma survivors is self-care first. It is so important to take care of yourself, so that you are fully equipped to help others, and give them the 100% that they deserve. And for those of us who are survivors ourselves, I urge them to get the support they need—whether through a community or therapist —so that they work on their own healing to avoid being triggered themselves. Finally, we must be mindful, and open to feedback.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in America in the next 10 years?

I hope that it continues to be more accepted as a tool for healing, and that there will be more access to free yoga for those who cannot afford it.

Originally published on The Huffington Post


Would you like to be part of this support network? Explore our Training & Events page to learn how you can get involved by participating in a trauma-sensitive yoga training in your area, or support this work by hosting or attending a donation class.

Yoga For Everyone: How Gaiam Is Kickstarting Yoga Classes For The Underserved

Your yoga mat is a safe place. A place to learn how to let go of tension and trauma, and connect with resilience, strength and inner peace. Now, thanks to our corporate sponsor Gaiam, the 11 yoga supply grant recipients pictured here can experience that for themselves.

In partnering with Give Back Yoga to underwrite our supply grant program, Gaiam has donated more than 1500 mats this year to help certified teachers across the country launch new classes for underserved populations — from veterans and first responders, to at-risk youth and those in recovery from addiction or eating disorders. This supply grant program serves as a kickstarter for yoga service projects of all kinds, making a big impact to our mission of sharing the therapeutic benefits of yoga with those who are most vulnerable.

Through this partnership, we’re also able to supply mats and props to students who graduate from one of our teacher trainings, helping them to establish Give Back Yoga programs like Eat Breathe Thrive, Mindful Yoga Therapy, Yoga for 12-Step Recovery and more in their own communities.

We’re honored to help Gaiam stand behind their philosophy of “Yoga for everyone,” by working together to share the gift of yoga with the world. It all begins on the mat…won’t you join us?

Learn more about our supply grant program.


Join Us for A Day of Yoga! Community Event for High Risk Youth


On October 12th, Boulder’s Yoga community will come together for “A Day of Yoga”. This fundraiser and community builder through Boulder Body Wear will raise funds for the Give Back Yoga Foundation’s “At-Risk Youth” program.

The need is pressing. In 2013, the high school dropout rate across the US was 20%. And the cost of a dropout and poor school performance is reflected in the following statistics – 60-75% of prisoners have not graduated from high school*, the annual cost of dropouts to society is currently $292B*, the cost of incarcerating one juvenile for one year is $88K**. Finally, the United States spends on average $6B per year on the incarcerations of youth in America per year***.

How GBYF Is Bringing Yoga and Mindfulness to At-Risk Youth

In 2013, Give Back Yoga awarded a $40,000 grant to Niroga Institute for the development of video lessons to help educators, mental health professionals and violence prevention officials share Transformative Life Skills with at-risk youth. A $10,000 matching grant was also awarded to help Niroga train educators and professionals to share TLS with children in the politically unstable region of Palestine’s West Bank.

To help as many at-risk students as possible to stay in school and build a better life, Give Back Yoga is now supporting Niroga Institute’s campaign to fund 1,000 online training scholarships for educators who serve in schools where 50% or more of the students receive free or reduced-price meals. With an average of 25 students in each classroom, the campaign is designed to impact the lives of 25,000 at-risk students across the country — helping them to develop skills that will support academic success, as well as social and emotional learning.

A Day of Yoga: Class Schedule

11:30 AM: Yoga Loft with Jeff Bailey

12:00 PM: Core Power with Raj Seymour

12:30 PM: Yoga Junction with Nichole Golden.

1:00 PM: Give Back Yoga with Shanti Medina

1:30 PM: Radiance Power Yoga with Marsha Rodwin

2:00 PM: Outlaw Yoga with Mark Stefanowski

2:30 PM: Studio Be with Michelle Anderson

Body Dynamics has partnered with us to donate their space, located next to Boulder Body Wear in the Marriott Hotel building. Each studio will have a 20 minute class with 10 minutes after which for questions and sharing. Some of the best instructors from Boulder County will be teaching and sharing during this event, making it the perfect time to experience community while learning about different studios and types of yoga. A $10 donation per class or $30 donation for the day is encouraged. Boulder Body Wear will also be donating 10% of the profit from the days sales. Coupons for classes are available at BBW and you can reserve your class space by calling 303-447-9100.

Please bring your mat and spend the day coming together to support a better tomorrow for youth across the country!

Read more about the classes on offer during “A Day of Yoga.”


*America’s Promise; The Consequences of Dropping Out of School, The Center of Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University; Cross-National Comparison of Youth Justice, Neal Hazel.

Francie Winters: Empowering the Underserved

In the 1980s, Francie Winters began working with at-risk youth; her hope was to empower their lives. In the 90s, Francie’s work, “morphed into teaching mindfulness and yoga,” something she continues to do in Pahrump, Nevada, where she lives with her husband. In the latest interview for our yoga service series on the Huffington Post, Executive Director Rob Schware talks with Francie about the importance of empowering the underserved, and what she has learned from working with such populations.

“I wait patiently in meditation for my students to arrive, and don’t make them feel bad if they come in late. I’d rather they came than not come… I always ask myself, ‘If this is the only time this person comes to a class, what is the one thing I can share that could help them in their life?’” – Francie Winters, Coordinator of Environmental Strategies at the Nye and Esmeralda Counties Coalition (NyECC)

To learn more about what continues to motivate Francie’s work and her thoughts on the future of service yoga, read her full interview on the Huffington Post.


Can you join us in Giving Back from your mat? By donating the cost of one yoga class ($15) per month, you can give the gift of yoga to those who need it most – like veterans, first responders, prisoners, at-risk youth and more. Please join the Give Back Yoga family today by sharing a monthly donation!