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By Robbie Shell

For the nine boys and eight girls in the Chester Community Coalition’s trauma-informed yoga classes, violence is never far away. 

Two of the participants have lost friends to gun-related violence in a city where the murder rate has doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 53 per 100,000 residents to 103 per 100,000. It’s the highest rate in Delaware County, says Alexia Clarke, Executive Director of the Coalition.

The summer yoga classes – funded by last year’s $5,000 Community Award grant from Impact100 Philadelphia – spoke directly to the trauma and stress that many young people experience at home, in school and on the streets. The program is in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Chester.

Using breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, meditation and music, the six-week curriculum helped participants learn to understand and cope with their feelings in ways that would stick with them beyond the summer.

“Much of the focus was on educating kids about stress – how it impacts their bodies and how they could identify ways to deal with it,” says program leader Ahminah Cottman, a yoga practitioner who partners with communities to offer trauma-informed yoga to kids in middle and high school. 

“Trauma is not a one-time experience, especially in a community with so much violence,” she adds. “So towards the end of the program, we started what we called ‘yoga off the mat.’ The question is, how do you take the skills we have taught and apply them if you are having issues at school or at home? It’s not like you can just roll out your yoga mat. You need to think about the breathing, movement, and relaxation techniques you learned during the summer.” This is especially relevant “in schools where there is violence, drugs and alcohol, and where peer pressure exposes students” to inappropriate and possibly dangerous ways of coping, says Cottman, who has a Master’s degree from Widener University’s School of Social Work.

One of the most successful innovations in the program was tying music into the classes, she notes. “A lot of the kids wondered how they could use music to express difficult emotions that they couldn’t talk about or even identify.”

For example, Cottman started each class with the same yoga sequence but encouraged the kids to pick different songs each week to accompany it. They talked about what kind of music they listen to when they are happy, sad, feeling lost “or need to be motivated to push through hard and difficult times. It helped the kids articulate their experiences and how they coped.” 

Clarke cites more recent stresses the students have faced, including those related to Covid-19 and the challenges of returning back to in-person school. It is an especially difficult transition for some. Trauma-informed yoga classes “help to alleviate the trauma that lives in the body for many Chester youth, stemming from gun violence, the pandemic and the many other stressors we face as a regular part of living. The classes create a safe space where participants have the opportunity to rest and heal,” she says.

The hour-long sessions took place in the evenings in a Boys and Girls Club gymnasium equipped with mats, audio equipment and a speaker system. “The kids are asking when yoga is coming back to the club,” Cottman says. 

The Chester Community Coalition, founded in 2017, provides trauma-informed support services to families directly affected by violence. The services range from individual, group and art therapy for survivors of gun violence to helping individuals fill out housing and job applications to securing food and clothing and registering for school. In addition to four full-time and seven part-time staff members, the Coalition offers a wide range of opportunities for volunteers

Community Awards are a no-application program – started last year — to fund new or small organizations doing critical work.  Click here for more information on Impact100 Philadelphia’s grant-making process.