Paying it Forward: Natalie's Story

Defiance. That may be the most apt way to describe the first reaction of Natalie*, a student at the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy in Oakland, when she learned she would be participating in its new Niroga-led yoga program. Her Niroga yoga teacher, Annika, remembers that Natalie used to stand armed, refusing to take off her shoes during class, and swearing at the instructor.

Few could have guessed back then that Natalie would one day find herself not only embracing yoga, but also encouraging that practice in others as a peer educator, and even pursuing Niroga's Integral Health Fellowship Yoga Teacher Training to become a Certified Yoga Teacher herself. "You can take yoga with you everywhere. You can apply it to all aspects of your life," she said.

Four years ago, Niroga started a yoga program through Bay Area Community Resources school programming at Street Academy. Annika, a veteran instructor, was the chosen person to lead these classes. She has taught almost every class since then, experiencing multilevel transformations in the students, including Natalie, who was one of the first students to participate in the program.

Natalie recalls her initial stereotypes of yoga: "Only white people do that", she wrote. "It wasn't something Mexicans do."

Nowadays, when asked how the practice of yoga benefits her and her community, she replies that it allows her to be more tolerant, patient, and really listen to others. In a Latino community pressed with systematic violence, Natalie sees yoga as an avenue of transformation, which she has witnessed through the changes in her own school.

Victimized by a society that values short highs over long-term sustainable health, these students are actively learning tools to combat inner and outer violence. Youth are being taught that they can cope with their life circumstances through yoga instead of drinking, getting high, or resorting to physical violence. As a result, they are staying in school, doing their homework, and even becoming yoga teachers.

Natalie hopes to become a Certified Yoga Teacher through Niroga's Integral Health Fellowship -- a fitting way to give back to the community that fostered her own self-transformation.

*Not student's real name