An Inspiring Story of Yoga Helping Our At-Risk Youth

Recently I became a volunteer for Yoga Gangsters, a program that brings yoga to at-risk youth. Yoga Gangsters serves kids in foster care, in juvenile detention centers, in after-school programs and homeless shelters.

Many of the children served by Yoga Gangsters have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Some have even been orphaned. The class I am currently teaching is comprised of little ones, ages 4-8. These children live in a residential community with staff that takes care of them.

When we arrive each week, the children light up. Whether due to a love of yoga, or just the welcome change in their daily routine, they come with enthusiasm.

We start the classes by sitting in a circle and stating our names and how we are feeling.

“My name is _____ and I feel excited!”

They almost can’t contain themselves on their mats, wiggling as they try to remain in a cross-legged easy pose.

“My name is _____and I feel happy.”

They are all usually excited, or happy, or both.

It’s been evident from the start that one little girl, about seven years old, has prior yoga experience. She’s familiar with all kinds of poses and loves nothing more than getting an opportunity to lead the group. She is proud to share what she knows. She says her mother practices yoga.

As Yoga Gangster volunteers, it is policy we not know the kids’ histories, but we get little bits and pieces as we teach.

At our very first session, she sat herself in the middle of the circle and began chanting.




She chanted fast, like she was racing. The other children followed her, each trying to out-do the other. It got louder and wild before we finally reined it in.

From there, still in the middle of the circle leading the show, she suggested we all imagine a beautiful place we’d like to be. She took on leading a guided meditation with no suggestion to do so by the adults. It was beautiful, and we just kept rolling with her.

She directed us to open our eyes, and pointed to each person in turn, going around the circle, “Where were you? What was your place? Where did you want to be?”

Someone wanted to be on a mountaintop.

One boy wanted to be at a baseball game.

One had envisioned being at the ocean.

One little boy just four years old (earlier he’d told me his age by holding up four fingers), with soulful heartsick eyes, said, “I want to be home with Mama.” It was palpable, how much he missed his mother.

yoga gangster

Over the weeks we’ve worked on our yoga poses. We’ve done many, many animal poses. We’ve danced. We’ve acted out stories. We’ve done Sun Salutations.

We’ve hugged our knees into our chests and have told ourselves, “I’m such a good kid!”

We’ve stood fiercely in warrior poses shouting, “I am brave! I am strong!”

During a recent class, I put the kids in chair pose, and the little girl mentioned above said, “This is the pose Mama makes us do for punishment.”

Poker faced, I quickly moved the group into a new pose.

As a Yoga Gangsters volunteer, it is not my job to judge the children’s parents.


Back to those Om’s

Over the weeks, we worked on drawing them out a bit. How long could we Om for? Could we take a small pause between them? Our little friend learned to slow it down and the rest of the kids followed her lead.

We’ve practiced our Om’s with hands on our bellies. We’ve Om’d with hands on our hearts. We’ve chanted “Om” with hands on our fifth chakras, feeling the strength of the vibration of our voices in our throats.

Last week one of the childcare workers told us that our little friend, during an outing to a local park, had rallied a group of children and was leading them in an impromptu yoga class.

I marvel at her enthusiasm for life, even though it’s obviously been a difficult one so far. I admire her love of yoga, even though it’s been used against her at times. I am amazed at how she wants to lead, to help, to serve.

My fellow volunteers and I have often said she’s going to be great yoga teacher one day, but I’ve recently changed my mind about that. She won’t be a great teacher some day in the future. She already is one.

We’ve just been lucky enough to share her space.

Yoga Gangsters is a Miami-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to empower youth by addressing the symptoms of trauma and poverty such as limited education, addiction, violence, incarceration, teen pregnancy, homelessness and more using the practice of yoga, delivering messages of empowerment around self respect, self control, and self awareness.

You can donate here.

This article has been read 1K+ times. Feelin’ the love!


wonderful comments!

Ilonka Michelle O’Neil

Ilonka Michelle O’Neil is a writer, with a background in nursing. She teaches Vinyasa and Yin in the Boca Raton area. She volunteers for Yoga Gangsters and also Connected Warriors, a free yoga program for veterans. She is interested in healing trauma through yoga, and her passion is teaching yoga to parents of children with special needs. She blogs for Leslie Glickman's Yoga Journey.

Explore our on-demand
yoga and fitness classes.
See the Classes

Psst. Every class you take helps
plant a food-producing tree.

Yoga is our passion. Your health and wellness is our obsession.


Send this to a friend
Follow us on Close

Already have an account? Login

Create an Account

New to site? Create an Account

- OR -


Lost password?