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Lighting a Path for Those At Risk

By Sierra Hollister

I am a body person. So much of the joy in my life comes from the physical experience of being in my body. Body people tend to be the runners, the yogis, the athletes, the massage therapists and more. It makes perfect sense for a Kundalini Yoga teacher to be a body person. In spite of all my body-knowing, it is only in the past few years that I have come to understand that the experience of trauma can drive us out of our bodies.

That there are those of us that are as disassociated from our bodies as possible, disconnected because the pain of physical, sexual, mental and verbal abuse that has been received makes it too painful, too dangerous to really inhabit the body anymore. These are some of the populations that I have begun to share yoga with, in the past 3+ years.

Almost 4 years ago, I sat and watched an “Alternative School Awards Evening” at a rural high school in Western North Carolina. I stayed and watched this program, after watching the preceding program of awards where high school athletes and scholars are recognized for their accomplishments. I was there as my children are both gifted athletes and scholars and perpetually being acknowledged by the world around them. The program that followed changed my life forever.

I admit to some shame for not being awake to the struggles of some of the classmates of my children, previous to this event. That evening, I sat with a friend who worked in the grant-funded program that works to keep youth-at-risk in school and on track for high school graduation. As we watched these children receive awards for making it to school for various numbers of days, my friend gave me the back story on the reality of their lives.

There are children in my community (and most likely your community) that go home to broken homes. Not only broken in the sense of missing parents but quite literally broken: no heat, no food, leaking roofs, no safe shelter. Many of these same homes have adults that are vicious, drug and/or alcohol addicted, mentally unstable or a combination of all. Most of these homes contain an abuser, be it verbal, physical or sexual.

These are the kids that make me cry at high school graduations—if they even make it to graduation. Because these are the kids that seem to disappear: dropping out, moving away, becoming a teen drug or pregnancy statistic or worse. I think of all the ways in which I support my own children and I know that not even the least of these things are happening for these kids. This is the portion of our population that defines a good day as one in which no one hurts them.

These kids are living the hardest yoga, the yoga of survival, day in and day out. While I wanted to adopt all of them and bring them to live with me, that wasn’t possible. The next best thing I had to offer was sharing the infinite peace and well-being that I had found through the practice of Kundalini Yoga. I was blessed to know Yogi Bhajan, to have had the experience of his teachings directly from him, having begun my own practice in 1992 at Ahimsa Ashram in Washington, DC.

Kundalini Yoga changed my life and connected me to an unending source of strength and love. I wanted to share, at least, that. I, too, thought that sharing yoga was a small thing, inconsequential in the long run, but my experience taught me otherwise. Yoga can really make a difference in the life of any trauma survivor, of any age.

The latest scientific research confirms what we know in our hearts: that child abuse has a long-term impact on a child’s life. Children who experience abuse develop toxic levels of stress. Consistent high levels of stress not only impact quality of life, they actually damage the developing architecture of a child’s brain. This ultimately results in adults who are rarely able to navigate the world in a positive way.

There are a number of studies that cite the benefits of yoga and meditation to the youth-at-risk population. But what I really want to share with you is not a list of studies—it’s this: these kids go from pretending they don’t care about yoga at the start of the year to shyly sharing that “yoga saved my life” by the end of the year. And in between the start and end of the year, behavior improves, attendance improves, impulse control improves and self-esteem is gained. 

Having seen the benefits of sharing yoga and meditation with youth-at-risk in a very real way, I knew that yoga changes lives for the better. I also understand that I am changed, bettered, uplifted, humbled, broken, and made whole by this exchange as well. And I am the one that is shattered by the knowledge that we have to do better. In 2014 more than 128,000 children were referred to local DSS (Department of Social Service) for possible abuse and neglect. That same year, 25 children died at the hands of their caregivers. These statistics are unacceptable.

My year of sharing yoga with youth-at-risk at a rural high school not only changed the lives of the kids that I was privileged to practice with as well as myself, it has quite literally changed the lives of hundreds, maybe a thousand people by now. I was so inspired by the power of the practice and the very real transformation of lives, that I went on to found a nonprofit called Light a Path, a 501c3 with the mission “connection creates resilience.” Light a Path supports personal, communal and ecological resilience by connecting service-minded yoga teachers, somatic therapists, and body workers to populations with limited access to tools of well-being.

The original program at the high school has continued. We’ve added programs at other high schools and middle schools and are also now participating in a pilot program for first-time juvenile offenders who are given the opportunity to learn life skills, career coaching, mindfulness and yoga as an alternative to jail time.

We have also branched out, bringing yoga, mindfulness and other somatic tools of wellness to other populations. Light a Path has 8 different weekly classes in 3 area prisons, working with those that are incarcerated, as well as numerous programs with people in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, the unhoused, as well as those living below the poverty line. At this juncture, Light a Path is 100% volunteer driven, with more than 30 volunteers, serving up yoga, meditation, strength training, running and more, each week.

We have enlisted 7 Asheville area yoga studios to participate in our "transition pass"—a yoga pass that is given to prisoners that have done yoga with us in jail and are being released into the Asheville area. These pass holders are able to have unlimited yoga at all participating studios for 3 months post-release! And, we just had a woman who began yoga in prison two years ago, who was released this summer, just graduate from a local yoga teacher training program!

We know that through the consistent shared practice of yoga and meditation, people struggling with issues of addiction, abuse, poverty, lack of support, incarceration and more, are able to feel safe and supported as they reach for their somatic connection with the physical self. They are able to find peace and a sense of well-being within their bodies again. Everyone deserves that access. And maybe, just maybe, they have the chance to learn that, in spite of what they’ve been told, they are perfect, beautiful, and whole and have every right to be here.

In an effort to live Yogi Bhajan’s message of service: “You are here to serve, here to life, here to grace, here to give hope and action, to give the very deep love of your soul to all those who are in need,” Sierra Hollister, at the bequest of Yogi Bhajan, has shared the practice of Kundalini Yoga in Asheville, NC since 1995.

In addition to weekly classes and workshops, Sierra founded Light a Path, a 501c3 that supports personal, communal and ecological resilience by connecting service-minded yoga teachers, somatic therapists, and body workers to populations with limited access to holistic resources. In addition to Yogi Bhajan and Kundalini Yoga, Sierra has benefited from a life of many wonderful teachers and wisdom ways, including the greatest teachers of all, her children and her family. You can learn more about Sierra by visiting her online at www.sunlotusyoga.com