Meet Jennifer Cohen Harper, and practice the exercises in her new card deck, “Mindful Chair Yoga: 50+ Practices for All Ages”
Interviewed by Marlena Trafas
excerpt from “Mindful Chair Yoga”
HOW TO USE THESE CARDS:
Mindful Exploration Questions: Each card features a mindful exploration prompt. These questions are meant to help you bring kind and curious attention to the sensations in your body, your breath, your thoughts, and your overall experience of the present moment as you are exploring each activity. You can think about these questions, talk about them with a friend or colleague, or write or draw about them in a practice journal.
Jennifer Cohen Harper is an author, educator, and founder/CEO of Little Flower Yoga, an organization that brings mindfulness programming to schools and communities all across the country. Before she founded Little Flower Yoga in 2006, Jennifer spent eight years studying and practicing yoga and developing her career in education. She’s worked with kids in a variety of environments including domestic violence shelters, after-school groups, and alternative therapy programs for children with physical challenges. Jennifer earned a Master’s Degree in Education and Child Development from New York University’s Gallatin School where she wrote her thesis on the use of yoga in education settings. In 2009, she was a founding member of the Yoga Service Council and currently serves as its Board President and Conference Coordinator. She is an active member of the International Association of Yoga Therapy and is a registered Yoga Alliance Teacher.
Her previous works include her book, “Little Flower Yoga for Kids: A Yoga and Mindfulness Program to Help Your Child Improve Attention and Emotional Balance” and her first card deck, “Yoga and Mindfulness for Children.” Below, she discusses the benefits of using cards versus books, the barriers for kids to engage in mindful practice, and the origins of a yoga curriculum in schools.
What’s the benefit of using activity cards versus something like an activity book?
I love books, but the card format works so well because it’s more of a tool than a reference. Teachers, parents, and kids themselves find it more engaging to pull together sequences or lesson plans using cards that can be put up on a magnet board or laid out on a table. It also makes doing one practice feel like a full experience. [Activity cards] lend themselves to creative mix and matching, and encourage folks to find what works for them. Practice should be an experiment, and cards seem to naturally invite that spirit of experimentation and play.
How has your yoga practice informed your work as an educator and what inspired you to seek out yoga in the first place?
I sought out yoga in my early twenties, during a time in my life when I felt very isolated, was living far from family and in a destructive romantic relationship. I had been to yoga classes before through my teens, but this was different, and without knowing much about the practice I wandered into a supportive class with a loving teacher, and a lot of time dedicated to meditation. Like many people I found that I deeply needed a way to manage my own inner life more compassionately. And I needed the internal resources to manage my outer life in a way that had more boundaries and personal power.
There are so many ways to answer the question of how my practice has informed my work, but at the root of it all is that my work almost always comes down to my capacity to connect compassionately with other people. Whether it’s children, parents, educators, or someone in the New York City DOE office, the ability to be in relationship is the key to teaching, learning, building new programs, and pretty much everything else I’ve ever succeeded at. My practice has helped me bit by bit build a strong, compassionate relationship with myself, which has (most of the time) given me a foundation for meeting others with openness and a relative lack of “taking things personally” which in the education world is extremely important.
In your experience as an educator, are there certain barriers to mindful practice and yoga for some students, but not others? (whether the barriers are systematic, economic, or personal?)
While there are folks working hard to reduce barriers to participation, there are definitely many that remain.
For some it’s a matter of the cultural perception of yoga in the United States — as something for those who are skinny, wealthy, female, and white (which is particularly ironic given yoga’s origins). This is slowly changing as organizations such as the Yoga Service Council, Accessible Yoga, and many others are actively supporting both increased accessibility and increased visibility of the practice in spaces, and with communities that counter that narrative. Still there are kids who feel like they aren’t “yoga people” and we have to work hard in the classroom to establish a different perception of what yoga is.
We also do encounter students occasionally who come from communities that see yoga as a religion. As an organization we’re committed to teaching in a secular manner, but also with complete transparency and respect for families. We invite parents to observe and ask questions and try to engage fully in respectful dialogue.
We also serve many students who have experienced trauma and while yoga and mindfulness can support healing and the cultivation of resilience, they also present many opportunities for triggering, for being overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts, and if we aren’t careful in our approach we can do harm. So, the way we teach can become a barrier to participation if we don’t educate ourselves about the impact of trauma, take the time to cultivate safety in relationship, and learn how to teach in a way that maximizes student empowerment and agency.
Did you face any resistance in trying to bring yoga into schools? Was there already a foundation of mindfulness and meditation in some districts?
I started teaching yoga and mindfulness in schools in 2005, and there had already been an organized effort to incorporate these practices in some New York City schools as a way to support mental health after 9/11. Many schools and children were directly affected, and finding ways to increase a sense of safety, settle the nervous system, and increase well-being were, and continue to be, very important.
That said, there are a lot of schools in New York and the programming up to that point had been concentrated in just a few. The vast majority of schools I was working with had no exposure to these practices other than the occasional teacher or administrator with a personal practice. For several years most schools wanted to offer yoga as part of an after-school program, or part of PE, and it was hard for them to see the relevance of incorporating it into the school day.
That has changed dramatically and after 13 years almost all of our programs are now fully incorporated into the school day and the school culture with a combination of direct service programming to children and professional development for teachers and support staff. We’ve worked with over 375 schools, and while there are some individuals within schools who are resistant, most administrators and teachers have been enthusiastic about the potential both for their students and themselves. When we first enter into conversation with a school, we work hard to make sure we are understanding their needs and giving them what will be most beneficial to them, and our schools feel that sense of partnership that typically reduces resistance.
Along those same lines, what’s the current status of mindfulness and meditation in schools? Has there been a history of concerted efforts to incorporate mindfulness into curriculums? What was your experience with this in founding Little Flower Yoga?
Mindfulness in schools is such an interesting field, and so hard to get a read on in many ways. Because there’s really no central organizing body, we don’t have a clear sense of how many schools are offering programming, and what that programming consists of. There are dozens of organizations that offer programming and work closely with teachers, schools, and districts to incorporate mindfulness and yoga into the school day. There are also likely many thousands of classroom teachers who have been trained by various organizations incorporating mindfulness in their own way into the classroom.
Just at LFY alone we have trained well over 10,000 classroom teachers through our various professional development programs, have certified about 1200 through our training, and reach more than 4000 teachers a week with our Mindful Mondays program. If you take an average class size we’re likely reaching around 350,000 kids before any of our direct service programming or other resources, and we’re just one org out of many.
What I can say for sure is that the field is building momentum and discussion about incorporating programming into school curriculums is moving from the individual teacher level to the superintendent and chancellor level. Here in New York City, we work directly with the Department of Education to offer both professional development and student programming to schools in the city. That is a huge step from where we were 10 years ago — when convincing individual principals to bring programming out of after-school and into the school day was a really heavy lift.
How have kids changed and grown through yoga and mindfulness?
Our core mission is to help kids thrive through a wide variety of circumstances and meet their inevitable life challenge with a strong sense of self-awareness and personal power. Our programming is all designed around that goal, and we’ve watched many children build their capacity for resilience, expand frustration tolerance, and connect with their own inner strength through these embodied practices.
I want children to grow up knowing that they have inner resources, and that their life is not determined purely by the external circumstances and situations they find themselves in. At the same time, I hope they can use what they learn to explore the circumstances of their lives (and of other people’s lives) with curiosity and compassion, so they can make wise and empowering decisions about what to meet with acceptance and what to set firm boundaries around.
I want our kids, all of them, to grow up able to fiercely advocate for themselves and others from a place of grounding, connection, and love, rather than fear, desperation, or hatred. The life skills that these practices teach — self-awareness, emotional balance, compassion, tenacity — can help them get there.