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Street-Smart Karma Yoga: Terri Cooper and Miami’s Yoga Gangsters
Yoga Gangsters is a Miami-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering at-risk youth struggling with poverty, trauma, and the difficult life issues they generate via the science and practice of yoga. Informally launched in 2003 by teacher, writer, and activist Terri Cooper, Yoga Gangsters has since expanded into an independent 501c3 that’s served over 3,000 people (mostly youth in crisis) through weekly yoga programs held in over 25 inner city schools, hospitals, jails, homeless shelters, youth centers and other non-profit organizations throughout the Miami area.
In addition to offering classes, Yoga Gangsters assists youth with career training and job placement by providing selected applicants with full scholarships to the Urban Guru Program, a 200-hour yoga teacher training. Terri Cooper also leads a Yoga Outreach and At-Risk Certification program, an affordable three-day workshop that trains yoga teachers and other interested individuals to effectively serve youth in crisis. This program, which has trained over 265 volunteer yoga teachers to date, is a prerequisite for Yoga Gangsters Level II training, “YG2: Yoga in the Hood.”
In this interview, Terri Cooper explains how yoga saved her life, ignited her passion to serve, and enabled her to connect with others and build Yoga Gangsters into the inspiring organization it is today.
Carol Horton: Let’s start with your journey. How did you first get into yoga?
Terri Cooper: My story is pretty common. I think that everyone turns to yoga because they’re looking for something. Most often, they need to heal—whether from back pain or an emotional crisis.
I was at a place in my life where nothing was going well. I was completely disconnected from myself, my family, my purpose. I was spiraling downward. My life was unmanageable.
In all honesty, I’m not sure how much longer I would have been living and breathing on this earth if I hadn’t found yoga when I did.
Carol Horton: What first really hooked into the practice, and why?
Terri Cooper: I had tried yoga once or twice back around 1999-2000. But at that point I was too drug addicted to do it. Plus, I got injured on my second day of class. Still, that was enough to give me some sense of spiritual connection to the practice.
I didn’t throw myself into yoga until a few years later. In 2003, I decided that I wanted to change my life, and would commit to whatever it might take to do so—getting clean, ending negative relationships and making an all-around life change.
The first year of my practice wasn’t pretty. I was a miserable person. I’d lie in bed and cry and cry…everyday. I didn’t love myself at all.
Yoga was the only thing that made me feel better. So I’d drag myself out of bed and go to class. Every day. I didn’t have any special method or teacher. I’d just go to whatever I could afford, which meant lots of donation-based classes.
Carol Horton: When did you decide to teach yoga, and why?
Terri Cooper: I knew that I wanted to teach right away. I threw myself into a teacher training during that first year of intensive practice. Since I was still detoxing, though, a lot of it is a blur.
I also knew that I wanted to teach people like me. At that point, I didn’t feel that most of the studio population was like me at all. Now, I know that’s not really true, because we’re all one. But then, I felt like the mainstream yoga community could never understand my experience. I was drawn to teach those who were addicted or incarcerated.
I started in several locations throughout Miami in 2003. It grew organically from there. I taught everywhere, including regular yoga venues like studios, condos, and gyms in affluent South Beach. But I also made sure that I got over the bridge to teach in Miami, which is a different world. Sometimes I taught 25 classes a week.
In 2005, I started teaching kids in the Juvenile Hall on a regular basis. I also taught in a lot of low-income schools. I can only guess how many thousands of kids I served—I didn’t document any of it. Now that I’m running Yoga Gangsters, I wish that I had. But I had no clue that what I was doing was going to turn into an actual nonprofit.
Carol Horton: How did Yoga Gangsters get started?
Terri Cooper: I felt called to study with Seane Corn due to her outreach work, and started with her before she founded Off the Mat (OTM). Then, I took the first OTM training back in 2005. Seane, Hala Khouri, and Suzanne Sterling (the co-founders of OTM) were extremely encouraging, and have been mentoring me for years. They supported me in taking my work to the next level and making it legit.
Carol Horton: So, did OTM teach you how to run a nonprofit?
Terri Cooper: Well, I still don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m a college dropout and an ex-crystal meth addict. But I do have an incredible work ethic. And I’m driven and passionate. But even now, Yoga Gangsters doesn’t have the foundation and structure that so many other organizations doing this kind of work have.
Really, we are straight yoga gangster—we’re from the street. We don’t have a lot of professional expertise to support us. But we do have street cred and many hours of direct service. We really connect with the people that we serve.
Carol Horton: What age groups are you working with?
Terri Cooper: At this point, we’re teaching everyone, including adult staff, teachers, and social workers in the institutions we serve. Our focus is addressing crisis and trauma. We have a training program that teaches the basic relationship between yoga and trauma, and how the practice can help manage and heal it.
We encourage our teachers to work where they’re most comfortable, where they have empathy and understanding. Some work well with little kids, others with teens and young adults. Often, people work best with those who have suffered from the same sorts of traumas they’ve experienced. So, for example, if you’ve lived with domestic violence, you might feel called to work with battered women.
Carol Horton: Do you think those who haven’t personally experienced such trauma can teach those who have effectively.
Terri Cooper: Yes. Everybody needs to find their own balance. For me, this means learning more professional skills, like how to write a grant and build a board of directors. For someone from a more privileged background, it might mean learning to stop seeing yourself as separate from those that you serve.
Yoga enables us to experience connection, to realize that we’re all one. To be of service, you can’t come with a hierarchical point of view, like “I’m educated and I’m going to save you.” All that does is perpetuate the inequality that’s such a problem in the world.
To really be of service, you need to level out the playing field. You need to realize that you’re not saving anyone—if anything, your service is saving you. But wherever we’re starting from, we can all find that middle ground through real connection.
Carol Horton: What’s it like to do this work? Can you tell me a good story that provides a living example?
Terri Cooper: Sure! Here’s one of my favorite stories that really shows what this work is like:
I was working with young ladies in the Juvenile Hall in Miami. I’d go every week, but only see the girls three or four times before they’d get transferred to a different facility. It was an institutional, impersonal setting. The students would come in to class wearing orange jumpsuits and handcuffs.
One day we were doing headstand. That pose can be dangerous, and as usual, I made sure that everyone made an agreement about what needed to happen to keep it safe.
There was one girl who was quite large—maybe two and a half times bigger than me, and I’m not small. I could see in her eyes that she really wanted to go up into headstand. But when she started to try it, she got freaked out: “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”
I came up to her and said, “If you want me to help you, I can.” She tried again, but the same thing happened—as soon as she started going up, she got really scared and stopped.
I got down on my knees next to her and looked into her eyes. “You don’t have to do this,” I said. “But if you want to—I’ve got you. I will not let you fall.”
And the way she looked back at me—I knew that no one had ever said something like that to her before in her life. I can only imagine the traumas she’d survived to land in jail at age 14.
I got her in a bear hug to support her. And she kicked up into Headstand. She started screaming and kicking. She was wild. But I held on. And she went up and came back down, just fine.
As soon as her feet hit the ground, she stood up, threw her arms up in the air, and started running around the jail, waving, hooting “Woooooooooo! Wooooooooo!” And there was an incredible feeling of joy—real joy, right there in the jail.
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. After class, when I got back in my car, I had to sit and cry it out for 20 minutes.
And I have so many stories like that. Sometimes, I work with kids with bullets still lodged in their bodies.
And at first, they refuse to do any yoga at all. So I’ll just start practicing – maybe stand on my head for 10 minutes. And the kids will come up, crowd around, get curious …“What’s she doing?” Pretty soon, they’re trying it themselves. And they love it.
Carol Horton: I watched a great video on your website where you were talking to kids about yoga as a mind-body-spirit practice. Do you bring in the spiritual dimensions of yoga a lot? If so, is that a problem?
Terri Cooper: Yes, I’m a preacher girl all the time! I’m always talking to my students about yoga philosophy—the importance of non-attachment, letting go, cultivating gratitude, and creating the life of your dreams. I also teach them about using mantras.
I haven’t had any problems with being accused of teaching religion or anything like that. If anyone asks whether yoga is a religion, I explain that it’s a mind-body science. Plus, I think that the fact that Yoga Gangsters is so grounded keeps us from having those problems—because I know that many other people do. For example, I play a lot of hip hop in my classes, like Jay-Z and Eminem. Sure, I’ll also bring the energy down with more meditative music toward the end of class. But overall, it’s a very familiar, earthy vibe.
Carol Horton: Tell us a little about the organizational structure of Yoga Gangsters. How many teachers and staff do you have?
Terri Cooper: Our Executive Director, Marisol Tamez, is our only paid employee. Marisol took us through the process to become a 501c3 (a legally recognized nonprofit). She manages our programs and volunteers, and helps with everything. Jodi Weiner, our Executive Project Manager, volunteers her time and is also crucial to the success of our organization.
I volunteer for Yoga Gangsters about 20 hours a week, more when we’re really focused on fundraising. I teach one outreach class every week at Booker T. Washington High School in Overton, which is one of the most under-served schools in one of the impoverished cities in America. I also teach a three-day, 12-hour volunteer training program four times a year. Otherwise, I own a yoga studio, teach classes and run a 200-hour, Yoga Alliance certified, teacher training program.
Yoga Gangsters has 135 trained volunteers. We run six-week programs at institutions that want yoga; if it works well, we’ll renew the contract for another six weeks. We do a lot of one-day functions as well. This allows volunteers to work regularly or occasionally, as they wish.
I’m not sure of the exact figures, but I’d guess that 75 percent of our volunteers are yoga teachers. Others are parents, school teachers, guidance counselors and others who have taken our training. It’s only 12 hours and $200—we want to make it accessible. What makes a good teacher is being grounded, focused, centered and completely authentic—wherever you come from and whatever your background is, that’s all you need to be.
Carol Horton: What are your biggest challenges in doing this work?
Terri Cooper: It’s difficult work. It’s beautiful and it’s worth it—but if you ask anyone engaged in yoga service, they’ll tell you that most of us are underpaid and overworked. After all these years running Yoga Gangsters, we still have very little money. Our operating budget last year was $40,000.
Plus, we’re working with people and organizations that are severely under-resourced themselves. Every time I build a relationship with a set of kids, something happens—a school closes or a program shuts down. Every time I build a relationship with someone in power, they move on.
I’ve tried to quit this project several times. But I always come back to it. What keeps me going is actually working with the kids. Every time I go and teach, I’m re-energized. That part of the work is easy—and incredibly rewarding. Teaching these kids gives me a reason to be excited to get up every morning, no matter what.