A ‘crazy’ commitment
When Terri Cooper graduated from her yoga teacher training in 2003, she could have become an instructor at a local studio. Instead the Miami resident took her practice out into the community, teaching yoga to women in recovery and youth at a juvenile detention center and runaway shelter.
She didn’t know she was laying the groundwork for a nonprofit that would ultimately reach thousands of kids in trauma and crisis across the U.S. Eight years after she began providing them with tools to help them calm their nervous systems, feel safer in their bodies and make better decisions, Cooper officially incorporated Connection Coalition (formerly Yoga Gangsters). The organization — known as CoCo — brings yoga, mindfulness and meditation to schools, foster homes, rehab centers and more.
“When I started these programs, a lot of people thought I was crazy,” says Cooper. “They would say ‘These kids need food, they need text books and literacy skills…’ I agree. They need all those things.
“And, yoga teaches you accountability and acceptance and forgiveness and all those things you need to move forward from adverse childhood issues. It teaches mindfulness. When you’re able to make that connection between how you’re feeling and how you’re acting, that’s huge.”
A purpose born of pain
Cooper, who also owns the Miami studio and school 305 Yoga, can attest to that healing power. Yoga, after all, literally saved her from the life of drug and alcohol addiction she fell into as a teen, struggling to cope with anxiety and depression.
She began her practice shortly after moving from northern Virginia to Miami in 1999, but a groin injury on her third day of class not only sidelined her, it triggered intense feelings of trauma associated with a childhood sexual assault.
Six months later, she got hooked on crystal meth. At rock bottom, she says she knew she either had to take her own life or get clean. Yoga, which she’d stayed away from for three years, became vital to her recovery.
“I had so much rage and grief and fear and shame. I knew I needed to do something that would help me feel anything but this,” says Cooper. “(Yoga) was my lifeline. It became the thing I did every day.”
Determined to stay clean, she jumped into a teacher training program — and then right into teaching once she graduated, seeking out students with whom she shared a common experience and language.
At a jail, in a crisis center, at all the places where yoga seemed an unlikely balm, she knew she could offer a safe space for youth to be themselves and own their feelings.
“In order to reach them, you have to first create connections,” says Cooper. “The key is to earn a little bit of their trust and try to earn a little bit of their respect and once you create connection, then they might let you teach them yoga.”
As they bend and twist and stretch, the hope is they will learn to release tension and find a few moments of stillness. There are many moments, however, such as the time a teen in a juvenile detention center did her first headstand, that offer so much more.
The young woman had opted out of the pose following two unsuccessful supported attempts when she decided to try once more. Cooper got face to face with her on the ground:
“She’s looking down, and I say, ‘I’m going to tell you again, you don’t have to do this. It means nothing but if you want to, I’ve got you. I’m not going to let you fall.’ She looks up and I tell her again, ‘I will not let you fall. I’ve got you.’”
With Cooper’s help, the student kicked herself into a 10-second headstand. She then ran around the room screaming “Woo!”
“This young woman is experiencing a spontaneous moment of joy — in jail. We’re talking about a 14-year-old girl in jail. When I looked her in the eye and said, ‘I will not let you fall. I’ve got you’ — I don’t know if anyone ever said that to her before,” says Cooper.
A life-long learner
Today, a wealth of research supports the benefits of yoga and meditation for survivors of trauma. CoCo offers trauma-informed trainings and workshops across the country and its programs have been adopted in 25 states. Cooper is also on the faculty of Off the Mat Into the World®, a nonprofit dedicated to bridging yoga and activism.
These days she’s mostly busy being a mom to her 2-year-old daughter with her husband Todd, but she still finds time to lead teacher trainings and workshops and to train CoCo’s volunteers.
“I believe that the purpose of my life is to teach and to continue to learn the power of connection,” says Cooper. “That’s a huge thing: connection to our planet, connection to our choices, connection to our breath, connection to each other, connection to our stories. Connection is involved in everything we do.”