yoga for youth & diverse spaces: a new leaf yoga workshop experience


A couple of months ago, the good people from New Leaf Yoga Foundation came to Montreal to offer their first-ever workshop for teachers. New Leaf is a Toronto-based organization with a mission to empower youth through yoga. For the past six years, New Leaf’s committed teachers have been working with young men and women who are creating positive change in their lives.

This special weekend workshop at Naada Yoga was facilitated by Laura Sygrove (New Leaf’s co-founder and Executive Director) and Julia Gibran (a senior teacher with New Leaf). They pulled from their years of experience working with adolescents, sharing New Leaf’s guiding principles, best practices and the unique contents of their “toolbox” with a large, enthusiastic group of Montreal yoga teachers.

The workshop was designed for people who teach yoga and/or have an interest in working with youth. I was there because I teach yoga to marginalized adults, rather than youth, and am interested in making yoga more accessible and fostering inclusive spaces within yoga communities. New Leafs tools and practices make sense for everyone, not just youth.

The weekend workshop (approximately 15 hours of class time) wasn’t a training or certification process, and participants don’t have the right to call themselves “New Leaf Yoga Teachers” afterwards. It was, in essence, skill sharing – and the New Leaf facilitators were generous with their knowledge and wisdom.

The New Leaf Yoga Approach

Over the course of the weekend, we explored and reviewed the structure of a typical New Leaf yoga class.

Julia & Laura, our wonderful New Leaf facilitators!

Julia & Laura, our wonderful New Leaf facilitators!

New Leaf’s yoga methodology isn’t curriculum-based – rather, it’s model-based. The teachers have different backgrounds and come from various traditions. New Leaf trained teachers follow a common structure for all their classes, with room to improvise and respond.

The elements of a New Leaf class include an opening (with a check-in, to build relationship with youth and set an intention or theme for the class); a centring exercise (basic breathing or meditation); an asana practice; a final relaxation; and a closing (which often takes the form of a facilitated discussion, with an off-the-mat suggestion or practice – the purpose is to draw a connection between real life and what happens in yoga class).

New Leaf works within a trauma-sensitive and anti-oppression framework. Their work is influenced by Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger, and David Emerson. For more info about trauma-sensitive yoga, see this interview with Emerson.

Guiding Principles

Their work is rooted in valuing solidarity over charity. New Leaf stresses the importance of wanting to work with people without trying to save them. They work as advocates for young people and continuously educate themselves, remembering that youth are not problems to be fixed. New Leaf’s work is collaboration, not a handout.

New Leaf also takes a strength-based approach, meaning that they look for positives while acknowledging challenges. They also meet people where they’re at, striving to offer yoga in a way that’s relatable and applicable to young people’s lives.

They recognize that relationship is at the heart of this work. Laura quoted one of her teacher’s, Michael Stone, as saying, “Yoga is relationship.” New Leaf actively works on developing relationships with community organizations, service providers, outreach workers and the youth themselves. To do so, they keep their work focused on the Toronto area and specific neighbourhoods within.

New Leaf in action: this video is from their current fundraising campaign to expand their programming.

New Leaf’s Best Practices

After years of experimenting and growing, New Leaf has come up with some best practices and techniques for working with youth, including creating agreements, active listening, Non-Violent Communication and ways of working with challenges.

Of these best practices, I found the agreements to be most interesting. They collectively create agreements with youth to foster a sense of inclusivity, empowerment and choice in their yoga classes. After the agreement is written up, it’s posted around the space.

new-leaf-logoOn the Friday evening, the group created an agreement together, brainstorming ideas and things to include. It was posted on the wall of the studio and periodically referred to. In the youth context, the agreement would be created at the first meeting with a group that will be seen regularly for a set amount of time.

The New Leaf  ‘Creating Safer Spaces’ Toolbox

Teaching yoga is as much about creating a safer space as it is about sharing a practice. The New Leaf crew have a “toolbox” of tips and considerations that will transform any situation into a safer space for everyone.

This box of tools includes being familiar with the structure of the space where the yoga classes are happening and favouring invitational language (asking rather than telling – “when you’re ready,” “if you like,” “maybe”) and inquiry (“how does it feel when,” “notice”).

They also encourage teachers to avoid moving around the room and offering hands-on assists (a recent hot button topic in yoga studios, as “consent cards” grow in popularity).

These are basic components of a trauma-sensitive approach. New Leaf has no particular sequence, but encourage teachers to keep their own sequences basic and simple.

Some of the New Leaf crew at an event in Toronto, July 2013.

Some of the New Leaf crew at an event in Toronto, July 2013.

I was especially pleased to see that New Leaf encourages teachers to have an awareness of privilege. Unfortunately, this was mentioned but not delved into deeply during the workshop’s content. Based on some conversations I had with the other workshop participants (many of whom were young, recently trained yoga teachers), they hadn’t had a lot of opportunities to explore the complexities of privilege or even discuss what the term meant and how it relates to their lives.

Some discussion of privilege, as well as introduction to systems of oppression and what it means to teach yoga within an anti-oppression framework, would have been valuable additions to New Leaf’s toolbox.

But this was a pilot workshop and I understand that New Leaf is currently working on adding a more specific anti-oppression component, as they develop the program based on feedback received from attendees.

Reaching In, Reaching Out

This is just a taste of what we covered in the weekend workshop. For the full experience, get involved with New Leaf in Toronto – or invite them to offer a workshop in your town! This was the first time that New Leaf has taken their work outside of the Greater Toronto Area and let’s hope it’s not the last.

New Leaf has created a viable, inspiring model for working with youth, based in theories of anti-oppression, trauma-sensitivity and safe communication. I’ve been experimenting with New Leaf’s tools and best practices in my classes with adults, and feel my yoga teaching is more compassionate and responsive. While this wasn’t a formal training, and the people in the group aren’t able to call ourselves “New Leaf Yoga Teachers,” we’ve all been equipped with practical tools to bring to our students and communities. As several people noted throughout the weekend, these tools are useful for making yoga more accessible and inclusive of everyone.

Support New Leaf Yoga’s awesome work!
Indiegogo Fundraising Campaign for Youth Yoga Day-Retreats (until August 20)
Mindfulness Yoga workshop with Frank Jude Boccio in Toronto (October 5 & 6)

  1. Sounds like an excellent program, Roseanne.

    Thanks for telling us about it.

    Bob W.

  2. Thank you for sharing what sounds like a strong, much needed program. When I started teaching yoga to teens in inner-city LA 15 or so years ago, I searched for a program of this style and approach, to no avail. I had to find the developmental info through ed courses and marry it with the modified yoga. This program can benefit so many teachers who wish to teach teens, but need some specific skills to get started successfully.

  3. I teach teens in Maine, Kid Yoga by Danielle Gorman, and this is exactly the approach I use.

    I agree this would be incredible to incorporate into adult classes too. Truly integrating our mind, heart, and spirit into our physical practice brings a powerful depth to classes from which everyone could benefit.

    Great to hear about others reaching out to youth in the same way!