Practicing Empathy: On Teaching Yoga to Children in the Public Schools

Colleen Leonardi, dancer, choreographer, writer and yoga teacher, has been working with the Yoga on High Foundation for the past two years, bringing yoga to students in under-resourced schools.  Colleen not only inspires those she teaches, but also those who know her, with her sensitive, thoughtful nature and creative spirit.

As I drive to the school where I’ll teach another yoga class to children, I’m witness to what has now become a familiar scene. Homes boarded up with eviction notices on the door. Yards littered with well-used, rusty objects and trash. What looks to be young, young children wandering alone along the busy street, dangling one foot out into the road as if to tempt fate. I drive slowly, carefully. The scene is markedly different from where I live in the Short North, a neighborhood of bright flowers and clean windows—a place that feels like a place of privilege, now.

This is hard for me. I am sensitive and extremely thoughtful by nature. I think about how one of these homes might be the home of the one of the children I teach. I think about how one of these children might be a friend or sibling of one of my students. I see the interdependency of things in this neighborhood. My yoga practice and teaching does not start and stop at the door of the school. I am acutely aware, before even entering the classroom, of what I’m truly stepping into. My heart is full of what I think I know and all that I don’t.

It is a humbling experience to teach, always. But it is even more humbling when teaching children in need in the public schools. The need is great. The children have such big hearts. And all I want to do each week is stay and play with them for more than an hour. I want to love them more because I see the need. But I know I must trust that my hour with them is enough. It has to be.

That is the reality of my relationship with them. The other reality, the one I speak of above, is much greater for them and for me. I can help them breathe and create space in their body for movement and play. I can help them relax in savasana. I can help them stand tall and strong in tree pose. We can do a lot together.

But I cannot move them to a nicer home. I cannot make sure they’re getting enough food to eat to help them stand tall and strong. I cannot make sure they have someone in their life who will take the time to learn, laugh and fail with them, as we learn and laugh when practicing the poses and falling out of them, saying together, “Oh, that was hard, wasn’t it?”

So my yoga teachings and classes becomes an offering I dole out to them and the teachers who take the class with me. But when I’m preparing to teach I also know that I’m going to be met with another hardship, another dose of reality that is always hard to swallow. My empathic response is going to be triggered yet again and I am going to be left feeling powerless yet again. So I build the courage and resiliency to face these challenges and teach a good class.

And what is a good yoga class? I continue to ask myself this question all the time. Meditation leader Susan Piver says,
“If you’re not practicing what you’re teaching, than you shouldn’t be teaching it.” I practice yoga daily. But I’m not just teaching the physical aspects of yoga when I go into these schools. I’m teaching kindness, respect, patience, equanimity, balance, self-care and self-love. If I’m doing my job, the job I want to do with these kids, that’s what I am teaching, and also practicing with myself!

So I suppose my openness when I drive through the neighborhood on the way to the school and my ability to see the hardship and breathe it in and cry for the children and their families before walking into the school is a sign of my practice in action. I suppose my empathetic response is a good thing. I call on my training, my knowledge of the human body and my years of experience teaching children and adults, to be sure. But at the end of it all I have to be willing to surrender all that I know. I have to be willing to not think my way through the neighborhood and think my way through the class. I have learned that in order to really reach these children I have to walk to meet them with an open, full heart. I have to be willing to feel.

It takes practice, a personal practice that cannot be cultivated with the use of books and language alone. It is a path—one all of us teachers must walk at some point our lives. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to walk it now, and to write about it here. Namaste.

To support the Yoga on High Foundation consider making a donation or attending our Summer Soiree and Fundraiser Saturday, July 14.

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6 Responses to Practicing Empathy: On Teaching Yoga to Children in the Public Schools
  1. Jennifer

    Beautifully written Colleen! It brought up my experiences when I worked at a homeless shelter. I can identify with you and your sensitivity and empathy. I wish I could do more! I admire you for teaching these students and know you are truly making a difference in their lives, just your presence!

    • Bijal

      I LOVE this idea! I also have 4 kids, and the laundry can be quite a chore. They aren’t old enuogh for the races quite yet (I could just hear the tears!), but my kids do help me sort and put away laundry. I pull out a basket of clean clothes into the family room, then we start sorting things into 4 piles, one for each girl. When all is sorted, they each grab their pile and take it upstairs to be put away. It isn’t the neatest, but it’s one less thing for me to do and it teaches them some responsibility. It works for us!

  2. Susan

    Colleen–this is a great piece. I hope you can find peace in your practice…as you give these children a few moments of peace in their chaotic lives.

    • Marissa

      Carol – Kerri, your photos are buetaiful; how could you go wrong with such a handsome groom and perfectly lovely bride? I am Colleen’s Aunt Carol (known as A.C.). The wedding was so much fun. Honeymoon Island, the reception, the ceremony, the food and all the family and friends hanging out together made this one of the best weekends I’ve ever had! My husband John and I are so happy that we were there to help celebrate!CONGRATULATIONS TO DAVE AND COLLEEN. Welcome to the crazy family, Dave. God bless you both and bless your marriage. Much Love, A.C.

  3. Colleen Leonardi

    Thanks so much, Susan and Jennifer for your thoughts. I think as yogis and yoga teachers we’ve all had this experience of practicing empathy in order to teach from an authentic, honest place. So glad you enjoyed it and thanks again! xx

  4. Maik

    Jamie ~You are an AMAZING photographer! Every ptriuce is stunning. Thank you for giving my brother and his new bride the greatest gift of all. . . memories. It was a pleasure to meet you.Camie