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As yoga's popularity grows, the ripple effects are being felt in increasingly diverse communities; yoga studios now serve a widening range of people, with offerings like prenatal and senior yoga. And some of the most inspiring work is happening outside the studio, with teachers who endeavor to bring the benefits of the ancient practice to communities that might not otherwise have the chance to join in. Laurence Korth is one such teacher. The French-American volunteer recently introduced yoga to Students Run Oakland (SRO), a youth program changing the lives of Oakland teens.
Since 1999, SRO has been improving the overall health of young people through structured physical fitness training, mentoring and nutrition education. Each spring they help a group of at-risk youth train for the Los Angeles Marathon, and learn valuable lessons about commitment, resilience, and overcoming obstacles along the way.
The program is free, rigorous, and open to all students from participating high schools. The students are largely from high-crime neighborhoods, and many of them are the first in their family to earn a high school diploma. For five months, they train after school three times a week and on weekends. While only about one third of the students stick with the program through to the end, those that do gain a new appreciation for their bodies, satisfaction in completing long-term goals, and an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles.
Not long ago, Korth floated the idea of supplementing the SRO run program with a yoga practice - a way to cross-train, find balance, and maintain flexibility throughout the season. The integration has been well-received, in part, due to the fact that, as an immigrant, Korth has a deep understanding of what it feels like to embark on new experiences and can relate to the students who are trying yoga for the very first time.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sit in on one of Korth's SRO yoga classes. Here's how it went.
We enter a small, carpeted room on the top floor of the building. Jafet, a 10th grader from Castlemont High, is wearing a black bandana with yin yang symbols. He informs me that the yin represents good and the yang, evil. When we are settled, Korth “invites” students to take off their shoes. Jafet mutters a half-joking comment under his breath about odour and foot fungus, a response Korth says is common among the teens. He sensitively offers the possibility of leaving socks on, but makes a less negotiable request for students to turn off cell phones and dispose of their chewing gum. He begins his narrative to bring the students inside their bodies and connect to their breathing. He asks the students to use an imaginary cell phone to call their feet, make a connection and find out how the toes are feeling today.
“The students are not used to adults making them feel or think the way Laurence does,” commented Christine Chapon, project director. Perhaps the most inspiring element in this class is the fact that Korth's students are not the only ones being nourished by his calm and steady voice - Korth clearly feels nourished and grateful to share his time with them as well.
Korth has been a teacher, a yogini and a father for a long time, but only this year did he decided to merge these roles in his work with SRO. He radiates with satisfaction as he watches these young, unlikely yogis embracing simple, yet invaluable skills like closing their eyes and paying attention to their breath. In this age of videogames and long workdays, these teens are receiving absolute presence from Korth. He says he has learned from his two sons (ages 16 and 18) that this is what teens need the most.
Korth hopes the students in the program take away a more centered mind, respect for themselves and a greater understanding of their bodies. From the look of their faces during savasana, it appears that the message has been received. The teens confirm this when they talk with me at the end of class. They tell me that the yoga has helped prepare them for the Los Angeles Marathon this spring. Of course, what better tool than yoga to help these students find their way across the finish line?