Interview with Mary Kay Vadino: A Street Yoga Teacher at Rainier Beach Freedom School & Ryther Child Center
By Melanie Eng I July 28, 2017
Mary Kay Bisignano-Vadino is one of Street Yoga’s most dedicated volunteer teachers. She has been a part of our community since the very beginning: bringing yoga and mindfulness to at-risk youth since 2007.
A seasoned teacher, Mary Kay is passionate about empowering young people to grow, thrive and cultivate resilience through yoga. She is especially devoted to the school-aged foster kids taking her weekly class at Ryther Center for Children and Youth, where she has taught yoga for the past three years.
Ryther, a therapeutic facility for underserved youth, helps thousands of children each year with complex emotional, mental and family-related challenges. The center provides counseling services, substance abuse treatment, on-site schooling and foster care, in addition to elective therapy like Mary Kay’s yoga class.
This summer, Mary Kay is also teaching teach a first-of-its-kind yoga class to emerging teen leaders through the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools program at Rainier Beach High School— a nation-wide summer learning program that emphasizes community organizing and social action. In Washington State, the WA-Bloc Freedom Schools program enhances student success by preventing summer learning loss, fostering community building and fueling healthy habits (including resilience). Mary Kay’s class will do its part to help incoming 9th and 10th graders develop crucial leadership skills through movement, mindfulness and peer-to-peer connection.
Q: What first inspired you to start teaching trauma-informed yoga to youth?
I have three children of my own, and I’d already been teaching kids forever and ever when I first started with Street Yoga. I thought: here’s a population that might not have the same access to yoga as my mainstream kids, but have so much to benefit from it. Not only from the discipline of committing to a weekly practice, but also how yoga encourages you to listen to your body, and take notice of feelings that you might not ordinarily want to feel or process. As a teacher, I already knew kids that had run away or were kicked out of their homes. So it was a really fine line between the kids I was already teaching and the Street Yoga population. It was a very natural transition for me.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of teaching yoga to at-risk youth? What motivates you to keep teaching?
It’s seeing the little pieces of progress that the kids make. Like when a student goes from that first time sitting on their mat, totally distracted and unable to come to themselves, to finding comfort in their breath and drawing on their own strength. When I get feedback from the staff at Ryther that the kids are asking to practice on their own for self-soothing and to resolve conflicts – like when they have a panic attack and ask for their yoga mat – it’s just so rewarding. The best moments for me are seeing my kids really show that ownership. And I’m learning so much from them! I’ve definitely had my most ‘yogic’ moments with my Ryther kids.
Q: What are some challenges you’ve faced in working with this population – and how have you overcome them?
Over the years, I’ve experienced a lot of resistance from students – they’ll get quiet and shut down, because there’s a lot inside of them that’s painful and they don’t want to pay attention to. They’ll struggle with things like: How do I activate my breath? How to I live in my body without spinning out in my mind? At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to stick with it. But what I did, and what you have to do, is just keep showing up. You keep showing up for the kids, and they show up for you – it’s a group effort! We use a lot of the comforting, affirming poses, too. They know they can always retreat into child’s pose or stargazer pose, for example, when it gets to be too much. And it’s usually a quick comeback after that.
Q: How is your approach to teaching at-risk youth different than teaching mainstream yoga classes for kids?
With the yoga that we teach to at-risk youth, the approach is all about: “Well, let’s give this a try! Let’s do the best we can today!” It’s very individualized and personalized for each student. Whereas teaching mainstream kids, I’ll push them a little bit harder. It’s also much more interactive than any of the other classes I teach. There’s a lot of exploration, with independent discovery and then coming together to share. It’s great. We’re constantly finding out new things about ourselves, and about each other, and leaving each day better off for it.
Q: What are your hopes for teaching yoga at the Freedom School this summer?
This a new program for high schoolers that are really interested in making changes in the community, who already see themselves as leaders of the future. So one of my goals for this program is to really hand that ownership of the practice over to them, so they can get in touch with their inner power and strength. These kids are all coming in with so much to offer themselves and the group – and of course, as high schoolers they’re very social – so there will be lots of sharing and interaction involved.
Q: What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach trauma informed yoga to youth?
My advice for anyone thinking about pursuing this type of teaching is to find what you’re most passionate about in your own practice, and find a way to bring that to your students. Find what it is that you love and share that with the Street Yoga community. If you can share your enthusiasm for yoga….yoga will do the rest!