Feed The Yogi
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An Interview with Ryan Leier- Yoga For Youth

Ryan Leier is the energetic and inspired owner of ONE Yoga Saskatoon and Yoga For Youth which is a project that has been responsible for bringing yoga and meditation into public schools and community centers throughout the Saskatoon school district and into lower-income neighborhoods. I was lucky enough to get the busy man on the phone the other week for this interview.

Interview with Ryan Leier- Founder of Yoga For Youth and ONE Yoga Saskatoon

RS: Can you tell me about Yoga For Youth? What is it and what do you do?

RL: We’re a non profit organization made up of a group of yoga teachers and what we’re doing is taking yoga to the schools and communities through physical education classes in the public schools, and in after-school programs or though community centers. Our focus is on inner city youth, kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to yoga classes. For the last year we’ve been working on teaching the inner city kids and then bringing them with us to different parts of town to teach and demonstrate to the kids at other schools.

RS: How many locations are you in right now?

RL: About 20

RS: Are they mostly public schools?

RL: The Catholic schools have been trying to bring us in and they’re really open to what we’re offering. It’s interesting, the Catholic schools want the whole tradition. They want to know the philosophy, the spiritual aspects and the moral codes. I was really surprised in a good way at how open they were because some of the public schools we’re in just want us to come and teach ‘special’ phys. ed. classes, and teach them fitness yoga. Yesterday I went into the Catholic school and the principle was doing an announcement right before the class and what he was talking about was the courage of Jesus and Martin Luther King to be non-violent. It was Ahimsa. It was great, it matched exactly what I wanted to talk to the kids about; being able to use the poses to develop courage so they could speak for themselves and not follow peer pressure

RS: It sounds like Yoga For Youth is sharing a lot more than just the physical practice of asana with these kids?

RL: Definitely, that’s what our intention is.

RS: Do you find that the kids you’re working with are receptive to the teachings? Are they more or less receptive to the asana compared to the philosophy? Where is their interest?

RL: For some of the kids something has definitely sparked, they know that the yoga practice can take them to a new place. We have some kids who are coming from lots of drug use. We have two girls who are from one of the inner city high schools who are starting to come to the studio now on their own, rather than going out and getting high… They both had serious drug use problems. A few of the kids are embracing it as a thing that has the potential to really change their lives in terms of how they behave and respond to their world. Then there’s another group that’s come in from the sports teams that are coming in to use yoga to get fit and to get them into better shape and prevent injuries. So it’s reaching the kids on different levels and I think that for the most part they’re receptive to what yoga is in its entirety, beyond just the physical practice.

RS: What is the average age of the kids that you’re teaching?

RL: Anywhere from 5 years old to 25 years old… I had a grade 2 kid the other day… I always ask the kids what they think that yoga is, and they say things like “strength” or  “peacefulness“, and one little girl put up her hand and said “Yoga is the art of relaxation.” They’re so smart!

RS: How did Yoga For Youth begin?

RL: A few years ago I was talking to the man who was my religious studies professor in college, he’s a Tibetan Buddhist who’s the head of the department for religious studies here at the university. I was telling him about my teacher Father Joe Pereira who does work with HIV and AIDS and drugs and alcohol addiction recovery in India, (The Kripa Foundation has over 50 locations worldwide. It was started by Fr. Joe and supported by Mother Theresa. Visit FR. Joe’s site here and learn more about his project here.) and I was telling my prof, Dr. Jay that I wanted to dedicate myself to serving Fr. Joe’s mission. Dr. Jay said, “Well, what experience do you have with working with drugs and alcohol?” and I said,

“None.”

“What about HIV and AIDS?”

“None.”

He said, “Well you’ve trained to be a teacher and you’re working to coach kids in basketball… Have you ever thought about serving yoga to the kids before they go through all the things like addiction and health problems and using yoga to reach them first?”

And I realized that’s where my strength was so I decided to put together this foundation. It’s been growing over the past few years, and hopefully it will continue to grow.

Father Joe Pereira

(Fr. Joe Pereira)

RS: Is Yoga For Youth still affiliated with Kripa and Fr. Joe?

RL: He supports it. It’s not really affiliated but he’s given me his blessing to teach as many kids and train as many teachers as I can.

RS: How many teachers do you have working with you right now?

RL: We have 8.

RS: Are they all teachers who have been your long-time students? Did you train all of them?

RL: Most of them have been my students for a long time or I’ve trained them. I want to keep it fairly consistent right now in terms of the kinds of things we’re teaching and the style of yoga.

RS: You began offering a teacher training last year, can you speak a little about it?

RL: I believe teaching yoga is something that really comes through if you have a practice. Someone who teaches, I think, really needs to have a daily practice or the integrity of the teachings doesn’t really translate. At the training we try to teach people how to practice yoga in their daily life beyond just the asana, beyond the 60 minutes or 90 minutes in a class, but in all other aspects of what they do and how they live.

This past year it was a ONE Yoga training and Yoga For Youth training, so anyone that did it could teach Yoga For Youth… In the future the training will be specific, either ONE Yoga or Yoga For Youth. Right now I’m working on our mission statement and developing an 8-week program with different sequences and a class every day with a different focus.

RS: What do you envision as the future of Yoga For Youth?

RL: We were working towards actually getting it into the provincial or at least city-wide curriculum, and I found it’s really difficult. Now we’re looking at getting it into more community type programs like after-school groups where the kids and parents can come and practice. In the inner city schools the thing is that you need to be there right after school gets out, otherwise it’s really unlikely that the kids are going to be able to find a way to come back for the group.

I would love to see it in the curriculum in Saskatoon and maybe even across Canada in different cities. I would love it if we could work with a behavioral specialist who would come in and research what the affects of yoga are on the kids. I think that if we could convince people of the value, we could make it a part of the school curriculum. Ideally I would love to see yoga be a part of every kids school day, 5 minutes of meditation and 15 minutes of poses. It would change the schools and the people completely.

RS: What is it about a yoga practice that’s different from sports or theater or other hobbies? What about yoga would help someone be more aware and more loving or encourage those traits?

RL: Yoga gives people the tools that they need to become comfortable in their own skin and to make good, conscious choices rather than following peer pressure or rather than following habitual ways or cultural standards that aren’t always kind, loving and truthful. I think that yoga helps people to connect with their personal power and their ability to love themselves and others.

Yoga also brings people to honor their bodies. In class we encourage them to come from their hearts and their feelings and intuition rather than doing poses because they’re competitive or because they think everyone else is doing it. It makes them mindful of their actions, their words, their thoughts and it empowers them to learn what they can do and what they can go through. We challenge people in yoga classes, we put them into situations on the mat that are really hard and we make them stay in it and find comfort and just breathe through it even when things get tough. I think that the longer someone can stay in a pose that’s safe, but is challenging and uncomfortable… That learning to work through their physical challenges and discomfort makes them more tolerant and loving people who are accepting of others and accepting of life.

RS: Where do you get your financial support? Do you receive any government funding through the schools?

RL: We receive individual donations and we do fundraiser/karma classes to buy mats and pay teachers.  We’re definitely on the lookout for a mat company to sponsor us if you know of any!

It’s been difficult to get funding through the schools because they have to be a bit wary of religious affiliations, or I guess, what can be seen as religious affiliation. I talked to a woman with the school board yesterday and the first thing she brought up was that some of the parents don’t like yoga being taught in schools because they think it’s religious.

RS: Other than some parents who are concerned about potential religious conflicts, how has the response been from the other parents, kids and teachers? Does it seem like there is some kind of general attitude or response to your program so far?

RL: For the most part, everyone really loves it and they appreciate it and they want more of it. The more time we spend in one school, the more the parents and the teachers see what the possible benefits of yoga are and what yoga can do for them and the kids as human beings. Beyond building strength or flexibility, the teachers notice that the kids are calmer and more focused. The teachers see them actually using some of the principles of yoga like kindness, truthfulness, and non-stealing.

RS: Can you say a little about the perception that yoga is a religion? How do you teach mindfulness and spirituality without teaching religion, or do you? Is that a part of your program?

RL: We talk about things a bit differently. We don’t talk about God but sometimes in Savasana we say things like “Let that force that is breathing you… Whatever you think it is… Let it take care of you and relax with it.” We talk about surrendering and letting to the earth and to the sky like with the native spirituality. Sometimes we use language like soul or spirit, but if we do use that language or if we talk about Jesus or the Buddha, we make sure to say that it’s just one way of describing things. We use a lot of language like joining with your highest self or conscience, and what we’re talking about is the power of love. I guess we use the word love interchangeably with god.

The inner cities have lots of Native American kids whose tradition has really been suppressed and dishonored in Canada so we often incorporate certain aspects of their tradition, like the elements, the earth, sky, fire and water into our teachings. And at the end of the class when we say Namaste we also say words from Crazy Horse, “I salute the light within your eyes where the universe dwells. For when you are at that place within you and I am at that place within me we shall be one.”

We like to honor those teachings of the Mother Earth and the Father Sky. We’re on sacred land, here on Earth, and also as our bodies and in our minds we’re sacred.

What we’re teaching is not religious. We’re not asking them to be any certain way. We’re empowering the kids to really be themselves and we’re basically teaching them that at the core of who they are, they’re no better, no worse, no different than anyone else, there’s no superiority and no inferiority. We say things like “Have a proud heart and a humble chin”. What this program is doing for these kids is uplifting the kids that really need to be uplifted who are shy, insecure and maybe unhealthy. And it’s helping to humble the kids that have learned to bully or look down on their peers. The program works to bring young people into their center where they really are perfect and there’s nothing wrong with them and there’s nothing to prove. We’re trying to teach them to connect to that part of themselves. I think that’s really the heart of what yoga is.

YouTube Preview Image
(Yoga For Youth at work)

RS: What inspires you most, what motivates you to do what you do?

RL: Just looking in these kids eyes when they’re connecting to their source. What inspires me is these kids that are just shining and to be able to help them keep that shine and make it stronger. If we go to one school with 300 kids and 1 kid ‘gets it’. If just one kid understands the simple teachings of yoga it could have a huge impact on their whole life. If one kid came and said “Oh wow! That was really cool, maybe when I get older I’ll go and study that.” Or like a lot of these kids that we’re teaching now, maybe they’ll be inspired to become yoga teachers and teach their peers and stay on the path towards a peaceful and mindful life. I think that’s worth all of the time and effort that we put in.

RS: If you could design a t-shirt what would it say?

RL: LOVE!

But I also like Muhammad Ali’s poem that just says, “Me, We.” Because we’re all in this together, whether we like it or not or realize it or not, we’re all one, we’re all here on Earth together and we have to help each other out.

(Feed The Yogi will being selling Yoga For Youth T-shirts on the site in the next few months. Keep an eye out for them, all proceeds go to YFY)

Ryan and his lovely daughter and teaching assistant, Kiyah

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