Kathy sat in the classroom with 42 teenagers staring—transfixed by her words. Eyes closed, she breathed fully in a mini-meditation. Blinking back to that honest page, we heard the last line like rhyming knives: “But I still love him/ even though just once we were we/ after all he/ the father of me.”
Exasperated by disempowerment in traditional schools, I taught 9th graders mindfulness through literature. We couldn’t watch movies, attend field trips, or even do yoga. So, I assigned passages and prompts related to Eastern philosophies (cleverly Common Core-aligned) to improve self-awareness in students from a city allocating more funds to incarceration than learning. The Yoga and Mindful Literature Initiative for Girls manifested when Kathy (with newspaper taped to the door’s window so no administration could see) wrote her very first poem on something she had never before verbalized—her dad raped her at age 4.
YoGirls Program was born out of new life’s most poignant paradigm—echoing trauma and profound hope. What is it about the freedom to read and write that encourages my girls to heal? Is mindful literature responsible for the award-winning test scores they achieve every year? I took my research to Harvard and incorporated as an NYC non-profit: Not your average yoga for kids, we use empowering texts and asana practice to foster academic achievement, physical fitness, and socioemotional resilience in at-risk girls.
At Virayoga, YoGirls Program grew when we added actual yoga and our girls themselves became living, moving, breathing chapters in a transformative text—definitely the kicking and (joyful) screaming phase! But what about their aunts, mothers, grandmas? Yoga is a $10-billion, 82% female-driven industry, but culturally non-diverse and expensive studios mean 39% of practitioners stay at home. How can we empower women of all ages and backgrounds?
Now 5, YoGirls Program has a big sister (SHAKTIBARRE Women’s Collective). Every morning I recall Kathy and now, her children. Her bravery and truth at such a tender age underscore our social responsibility to close gender gaps by doing everything we can to holistically educate communities of women. Not by superimposing our ideals onto them—what youth ever responded well to that? Instead, by listening. By meeting young adults where they are, and moving forward from there. Such is the possibility of books, yoga, and the first words—an unpoetic, real promise—spoken eloquently by a girl from disadvantaged beginnings to her global sisters.