For the first time, Street Yoga joins the yoga service community in Cleveland. We are honored to partner the founder of Urban Lotus Youth Yoga, a non-profit organization created to bring yoga to urban youth. Offering free yoga classes to children through community organizations, schools, and detention centers; Urban Lotus Youth Yoga shares the belief that, like the lotus flower, all children have the potential to bloom into beautiful beings if only they are given the tools needed to reach that potential. Yoga helps children to realize that everything they need is already inside of them.
Interview with Jennifer Martinez Atzberger, Founder of Urban Lotus Youth Yoga
What led you to form Urban Lotus?
After working as an attorney with children in the juvenile justice system and schools for many years, I felt frustrated by the fact that I could fix their immediate problems (sometimes) but I couldn’t change the fact that they had a lot of circumstances that were out of my control and theirs. I realized through my own yoga practice that yoga was a tool you could take with you anywhere. One of the most essential concepts of yoga is that the only thing you can control is how you react to any given situation. Yoga teaches you to find happiness within, and then your outside circumstances become less powerful. I thought that this message was something that could empower the children to see that they were not helpless and that their situations that seemed so permanent, were really like everything else in this world, only temporary.
Also, yoga can be expensive. You can practice on your own, but first you need to learn from others. Most yoga in the West is taught in studios that are traditionally located in higher income neighborhoods. This is one of the reasons I was inspired to start a non-profit organization that brings free yoga to children in the inner-city. It is just not available to them right now, and it should be. I started by teaching to the girls in our local detention center. After class they would ask me how they could find yoga when they got out. I didn’t have any good answers. I knew it would be hard for them to find in their neighborhoods, and even if they could find a studio, it would be too expensive for them to go regularly. That’s when I decided to find a way to expand what I did in the detention center and bring yoga to them in their schools, and through community organizations.
How did you come to the practice of yoga?
I started practicing yoga for stress relief. I was in a very high stress job and I had just had my first child. I went with a friend and thought we were going to be doing some gentle stretches. Instead, I strolled into a “hot powerful flow” class. It was the hardest thing I have ever experienced! By the end, I was a puddle of sweat on the floor. As I lay there in savasana the teacher read this passage, I don’t remember the whole thing, but the last line was, “You are not broken; you do not need to be fixed.” The message was just what I needed to hear at that moment, and it got me to come back for more. Soon I was hooked on how good I felt at the end of class, even though it was still very challenging to me for many years.
What made you want to become a yoga teacher?
At first, I just wanted to take my practice to the next level. I had sort of jumped into yoga from the middle and I wanted to go back to the beginning and really understand what the poses were meant to be about. I also really enjoyed the philosophy of yoga and wanted to learn more. I expected to deepen my understanding of what to do with my body, but what I did not expect was how many positive people it would bring into my life. I went to teacher training thinking it might help to improve my asana practice and give me the skills to teach a class to the children I represented in court. By the time I was finished I had created a bond with people in the group that changed my life. I met some truly amazing and talented people during teacher training that are now my dearest friends, as well as some of the people that I admire most in this world.
What style of yoga do you teach?
I teach what many call Vinyasa Yoga, which is really just a hybrid of many different Hatha Yoga traditions; my focus is on connecting the breath to the movement. How I teach also depends on the age group. When I teach adults I tend to keep the class flowing from one pose to the next, but when I teach kids or teens I may do some sun salutations, but I pause more to focus on one pose at a time. And for younger children, I incorporate games. I also add Kirtan and chanting because kids are so musical. Philosophically, I love the message of the Tantric tradition that says the divine is inside all of us, and that we should celebrate our individuality while honoring the connection that we all share. I see yoga as something that is for everyone, regardless of sex, race, or religion.
What is your favorite thing about being a yoga teacher?
I love teaching because it takes you out of your own head for a while and asks you to be totally selfless. You can’t teach class thinking about what you want. Ideally, you are all eyes on your students, trying to feel what they need and making sure they are moving in a way that is safe, and hopefully, really feels good for them. It is also very creative. You get to choose the sequence of poses almost like a dance. Some days you have it all planned out, others you can be very improvisational. The best part though, is that you get to make people feel good. When I walk into a class at the detention center, often the girls look so stressed out and sad. To see them start to smile and have some fun, and maybe by the end look a little relaxed and happy, that is an amazing thing to have accomplished.
Tell us about your experience teaching girls in the Juvenile Detention Center:
Often times the girls will lack focus or control. They become impatient if something is difficult. I try to lighten the mood by giving them permission to laugh and have some fun. We joke and play music and dance in the poses to break the ice. I let them know yoga is a powerful tool for change, but that doesn’t mean it has to be serious all the time. Life, after all, is meant to be joyful!
In the detention center, kids are often tense and even the slightest bump can cause a fight. One class the girls were really struggling with focus and balance, so I had us all form a circle and try tree pose on our own. Most of the girls fell over quickly, but then I had us try it with everyone holding arms. They did great, and everyone held the pose much longer. I used the moment to remind them that sometimes we just have to lean on each other to make it through.
Thank you Jennifer!