Growing strong in body and mind

Alana Powell, right, and Cing Huai practice the extended cat pose during a session led by Yoga Gangsters at Virginia Key Beach Park in 2013.
Alana Powell, right, and Cing Huai practice the extended cat pose during a session led by Yoga Gangsters at Virginia Key Beach Park in 2013. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Yoga changed my life. After the shock of sudden illness, I began practicing. It helped me deal with demons and insecurities. It gave me a new, empowered view of myself. I forgave. I grew. I healed. I got stronger.

So when Terri Cooper, 40, told me about her transformation through yoga and her deep calling to share it with others to help them heal, I was not at all surprised. Terri is the founder of the nonprofit Yoga Gangsters, www.yogagangsters.org, and owner of a collection of three yoga studios called 305 Yoga — both Miami-based.

“I was living the South Beach life”, Cooper says. “Depression, anxiety, addiction, unhealthy relationships. … I was a hot mess. In 2003, after 10 years of working my a-- off at two jobs, taking drugs and partying, I found yoga and got clean. It gave me strength of body and mind.

“I grew up in extreme poverty. My family was on welfare,” she continues. “I wanted to share yoga with people who it was too expensive and inaccessible for.” Cooper began teaching yoga to women in recovery, and at juvenile centers and homeless shelters.

Eventually, she could not honor all of the teaching invitations on her own, so she wrote a curriculum with guidelines for instructing sensitive populations and enlisted help.

By 2012, her reach had grown so extensively that she formalized Yoga Gangsters. Today, Yoga Gangsters has programming in 14 states, with approximately 1,000 volunteers — 70 percent of them based in South Florida — and has served more than 10,000 youth in less than three years.

The organization targets youth living in circumstances of poverty and trauma, teaching in transient spaces such as foster homes, drug-rehabilitation and juvenile centers. Its South Florida portfolio includes Girl Power Rocks, Educate Tomorrow and AMI Kids, among many others.

Yoga Gangsters’ volunteers, who don’t have to be yoga teachers, must go through a paid 15-hour, three-day course that dives into the physical and emotional release of trauma through yoga; race, privilege, power and diversity; and relating to sensitive populations.

Volunteers can then commit to teaching for an hour, biweekly over periods of three-month stretches. The organization allots three months to beneficiary facilities to ensure the maximum reach of its limited resources.

Yoga Gangsters’ mission is to plant seeds of hope in the hearts of young people who are bombarded with negativity. “We want to give them uplifting, empowering messages,” said Executive Director Jodi Weiner, 46. “We do that while we practice yoga with them. We want them to feel moments of calm and peace.”

Undoubtedly, the Yoga Gangsters process is one of reciprocal exchange, benefiting both the giver and the receiver. Weiner, for instance, shares the positive impact the training had on her relationships with her parents by broadening her understanding of generational trauma.

According to Fran Rubio-Katz, a new volunteer who has just completed a three-month assignment at the Broward Youth Treatment Facility (which houses young men ages 13 to 18), “Every time I walk away from teaching the boys, I feel uplifted. It has brought a richness to my life I can’t even explain.”

Rubio-Katz, 40, has been an educator for 17 years. She currently runs Franny 911 in Fort Lauderdale, working with children with disabilities and behavioral issues. “As an educator, the training was invaluable,” she said.

Rubio-Katz recalls an encounter with a particularly withdrawn boy who eventually found his way on a yoga mat and became increasingly communicative. “He told me ‘I’m trying to learn not to be so angry — and this is going to help.’”

Yoga Gangsters is kept afloat entirely through grassroots fundraising activities. The 305 Yoga community also provides tremendous support by rallying donation efforts. With Weiner as the only staff member and limited finances, Cooper said that Yoga Gangsters is unable to fill many of its requests.

But despite these challenges — and given this team’s heart, hard work and passion — success and expansion are surely on the horizon.

Kinisha Correia is a blogger and writer based in Broward County.