New Leaf Yoga Foundation has been offering yoga classes to youth in Toronto’s marginalized communities for the past seven years. They’re now expanding their programming to carry out five year-long projects, and they’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to make it happen. These longer-term projects have measurable goals and will impact more than 500 youth.
New Leaf’s mission is to offering the opportunity to practice yoga to those who have had access to fewer supportive resources. They believe that youth have the capacity to heal and thrive, and that yoga gives them tools for “cultivating self-awareness, emotional resiliency, the ability to respond rather than react, and the opportunity to tap into a sense of personal empowerment.”
Julia Gibran, a senior teacher and workshop facilitator with New Leaf, answered some questions about the campaign and what the organization will do with the funds. Originally trained as a school teacher, Gibran has been working with New Leaf for four years. Growing up, she faced many of the same challenges that the youth she works with currently face. She also teaches yoga in traditional studios, and her background in education fuels a passion for social activism and creating self-care opportunities for youth, and abuse survivors of all ages.
Learn more about the Indiegogo campaign here.
This campaign is to raise money to bring “yoga-based life skills” to youth. How is yoga a life skill?
At it’s core yoga is about being mindful and present with what is. Through this practice of self-acceptance a union between mind, body and personal choice is achieved. I feel like so much stress and anxiety arise within youth and society at large from experiencing discord within these three areas. New Leaf uses tools such as simple physical practices (posture and breathing exercises), meditation techniques (mental exercise), and discussion (relationship-building exercises) in each class to connect with youth. We offer these techniques as tools for youth to empower themselves during stressful times.
Youth often say yoga helps them feel calm and relaxed after a hectic day. They also tell me that it gives them patience during moments of anger and overwhelm. They say that it helps them to stay focused during studying because its a good way to take a break. Many youth never felt like they knew they had a choice to take care of themselves and choose healthy relationships; attending yoga has helped them with that.
If we can teach any youth to foster a connection in any of these areas, I can’t think of a better life skill.
New Leaf has a mission to “offer the opportunity to practice yoga to those who have had access to fewer supportive resources.” How does New Leaf embody that mission?
New Leaf tends to work in areas with lower socio-economic trends within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Southern Ontario. This may include areas with a higher immigrant population where youth are first generation Canadians. These communities’ schools and centers do not have the resources that further developed areas have. NL also brings yoga to youth in custody facilities where they often have little support towards rehabilitation, especially support that cultivates mind/body healing. By reaching out to youth who have made choices that are often based on early conditioning, we give them the space they deserve to reconsider their own personal meanings and truth. This often leads to them re-entering their communities with a different sense of purpose: one that they created for themselves.
What are New Leaf’s prime areas of focus?
Building community, creating sustainability, and making tools accessible within the programs that are developed. We believe in the mindset of solidarity over charity. Getting to know the youth and where they are coming from is key. When possible, we ensure that networks are built and maintained within the communities we work in. This way, support for youth is co-created with staff in the community versus a one-sided mission.
How does yoga benefit the youth New Leaf works with, as well as their communities?
I work a lot in traditional studio settings and I think that the answer to this question is widespread. Yoga gives you the opportunity to carve out time for yourself and connect with yourself on all levels: body, mind and spirit (or personal choice). The communities we work in don’t often have the privilege of making time for this, as meeting the basic needs of living is at the forefront.
Also many of the youth we work with face a lot of environmental and systemic challenges and barriers that may involve trauma. New Leaf’s model takes these factors into account in its teaching methodology in hopes to create positive opportunities of choice for our youth.
One awesome example of youth involvement trickling into the community is a Youth Internship position arising out of a program I worked in. The youth felt the benefits of the program so much that she wanted to become involved. New Leaf created a position for her where she networked, did outreach and created the drop in program that I currently teach at! She plays a huge leadership role in New Leaf and works as an inspiration for other youth! Other youth within this program have stepped into similar roles that she was in: doing outreach, building community and maintaining a self-care practice of their own.
After seven years of building New Leaf and developing relationships, the organization seems to have a solid foundation. What does the future hold?
Over the last year New Leaf has been expanding into the Toronto District School Board and that is huge! Meeting youth within the system is key to really spreading the benefits of yoga and mindfulness on a larger level.
Something that I have had the opportunity to create this year within New Leaf are Youth Yoga Day Retreats. Most of our youth have never visited a studio or been taught by other teachers. I thought these days could incorporate fun ways to expand youth’s vision of yoga and see how it can work for them off the mat. I fundraised over the summer getting the youth involved in the process by creating a video for Indiegogo and also in the social networking process to raise money. We met our goal and I held the first one this past summer at local yoga studio. This was a fun-filled day with healthy food, community leaders, and high school and yoga teachers. The youth were exposed to a new yoga style, yoga philosophy, and leadership team-building activities. We also carried our theme of “compassionately expanding” to a community-building post-retreat outing to Exhibition Place. We had so much fun! I’m looking forward to having another in the new year.
Right now, New Leaf offers programs in the Greater Toronto Area. Do you have plans to expand to other Canadian cities? Or can the New Leaf model be re-created in other locations?
I believe that the New Leaf model is totally transferrable. New Leaf has distilled large amounts of research and practice into a relatable and simple method. New Leaf has made the very conscious choice to keep it’s growth contained for the last seven years as a way to create and build sustainable community ties that may have been potentially lost if the focus was on expansion. We work in communities where a lot of sensitivities have to be taken into consideration. Researching, learning and teaching in the way that we have has allowed for something really solid to be developed.
We’ve been asked a lot about expanding and are meeting that need now by offering an intensive workshop called “Reaching in and Reaching Out,” created by Laura Sygrove and the New Leaf Board. I co-facilitate this workshop with Laura and it shares the New Leaf model with social service practitioners and yoga instructors looking to create similar opportunities for youth within their communities.
Although New Leaf hasn’t set up shop anywhere else I feel that the future is bright and that sharing the tools is our first step towards supporting others in this type of work. In this vein we are still sharing the core principles that makes the teachings successful and allowing others access to use the model within a practice that they have already established or are excited to create!