R.I.S.E. introduces Bay Area teens to yoga, to help with self-image, grades, and other adolescent nightmares.
When Erin Lila Wilson started teaching yoga in 2005, her clientele ranged from seniors to cancer patients to young children.
Who was left out of the mix? Teenagers, partly because Wilson worried that the group would bring attitude into class. Yet Wilson—who was living in New York City at the time—“reluctantly agreed” to teach yoga to at-risk students at a continuation school (an alternative high school).
“I was pretty intimidated going in initially,” Wilson says. “But once I started actually teaching the teens, I was just blown away at how transformative the practice is in their lives.” According to Wilson, some participants in the program improved their grades, applied to and were accepted to college, and learned how to better manage their stress.
Now in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wilson is the founder and director of R.I.S.E.—root, inspire, support, and empower—which brings yoga and wellness programs into area schools. The group just wrapped up another Indiegogo campaign, raising more than $31,000 in a little more than a month, a significant improvement over last year’s fundraising total of $23,000.
R.I.S.E. aims to provide students with means to develop some peace in otherwise traumatic situations, Wilson says. “Even when they feel they have no control over their external circumstances, they do have control over their own minds and bodies.”
The program is now available in 12 school sites, after a 2012 pilot program at San Francisco’s Mission High School.
A lot of the messaging for R.I.S.E. mentions “youth” and “the next generation.” What is it about this group that inspires you and others involved in the program?
I feel that young people are so open and receptive and willing to explore new ideas and new ways of being in their bodies, new ways of being in the world. So I find that they’re much more receptive to the practice of yoga than many adults are. Because they are so open, they are able to make a lot of really positive changes in their lives. They are able to take these tools with them for the rest of their lives.
I feel like the teenage years are especially a really powerful time to bring these practices to young people. … It’s really our hope that by bringing these practices to young people, we will then be able to see positive change in our world.
Can you walk me through a typical session? How long is it, what happens and what do you hope is the immediate impact?
Our classes are typically one hour. We have a full curriculum we move through that also weaves in different health and wellness topics. We also really work to build community in the class and have the students interact with each other in a positive way and create an environment of support in the yoga classroom. We always start off class in a circle with a check-in; students will share one word to describe how they’re feeling that day or they’ll describe their energy level. … Then, whatever the theme is for the day—say the theme is using your breath to reduce stress—we’ll introduce [that]. And then the students will immediately go into a yoga practice. … Some breathing exercises to help students calm their minds and focus. And then they’ll move through various yoga postures. ... Class usually ends with a little breathing exercise, a moment of a mindfulness exercise, and we end with a closing circle, so the students will hold hands and we do a ‘pass the pulse.’ We squeeze your neighbor’s hand and they squeeze their neighbor’s hand, so the pulse goes all the way around the circle. And we’ll end by sharing one word to describe how they feel at the end of class.
I feel like we’ve had a successful class if the student leaves the class feeling a little calmer, more relaxed and more at ease in their bodies. I feel like I’ve done my job if they feel better leaving the yoga class than how they felt coming into the yoga class. …
Where does the organization go from here with the Indiegogo funds raised?
Those funds will allow us to expand to five new school sites. Since we started the program, more schools have found out about our work and we have a list of several schools that would like our programming but don’t yet have funding for it. So we launched this campaign so we could provide seed funding for some new school sites to expand our reach. It will also allow us to more than double our current impact.
Now that the campaign is over and we’ve reached our goal, we’re reaching out to the schools and letting them know we can start programs. … And these are schools, too, that serve more under-resourced students—so continuation high schools, there’s also a high school that works primarily with pregnant teen girls to support them through their pregnancy, schools that have a higher percentage of free-or-reduced-lunch [eligible] students.
What did you learn from the pilot program at Mission High School in January 2012 and from past years that has shaped the program today?
I’ll give you a little more background. When I was teaching in New York, that population was primarily an African-American population and some Latino students as well. When I moved to San Francisco to launch the program at Mission High School, it was a much larger population of immigrant students and English learners. So, I really had to adapt the curriculum and approach because of the language barrier. Our curriculum really could not be discussion-based. I had to demonstrate more of the poses. … I was kind of surprised at how effective the program was, in spite of the language barrier. Just the fact that the students were able to move their bodies and be in a safe space where they could let go or they could use their breath to calm themselves down, I felt a really deep impact.
But what it taught me was the importance of really understanding each population that we’re working with and the need to adapt the program and the curriculum to meet the needs of each population. …
And on the flipside, what have you learned from students along the way?
It’s been really inspiring for me to work with more underserved populations because they have taught me about the resiliency of the human spirit. And students who’ve been through a lot of trauma, I think, “Wow. If I had been through that in my life—if I had witnessed a family member getting killed or been through an abusive situation—I feel like I would be totally broken and nonfunctional.” The students come in with such strong, resilient spirits and they still come in often with a smile on their face.
It’s just been really beautiful to witness the growth in students through the course of the yoga practice and to see them connect more and more to themselves and to their own strengths and ultimately to their own potential as human beings.