This Miami yoga instructor shares how to stretch the body and calm the mind with children in at-risk neighborhoods.

Yoga Instructor
Terri demonstrates Tree Pose for the kids she mentors.
| Credit: Robbie Caponetto

After years of teaching at some of Miami's most exclusive spas and studios, Terri Cooper wants to bring yoga to the masses. On playgrounds and inside elementary school gyms, she shows inner-city youth how yoga isn't just exercise, but a way of life.

"Yoga strengthens the mind as well as the body, and its benefits extend far beyond the mat," she says. Among them: less tension, more energy, and general stress relief.

In addition to running her studio and training new instructors, Terri volunteers with the nonprofit Off The Mat, Into The World, which encourages yoga practitioners to participate in service projects in their communities and around the world. She's traveled as far as Uganda to teach yoga and provide humanitarian aide.

But her true passion is at home in Miami, where she founded the 305 Spiritual Gangsters, a program that brings free yoga classes to children ages 6 to 18 in at-risk neighborhoods like Little Haiti and Overtown. By working in these impoverished areas, Terri mentors her young students and teaches them to take care of their bodies and minds for an improved quality of life. Here, she shares insight into how the same principles of deep breathing and clear thinking that inspire young kids can benefit you too.

How did you discover yoga?
I had a difficult childhood, and I started using drugs in college. By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I had a problem. When I was 30, I realized I needed to change. That's when I stopped doing drugs and started doing yoga. It literally saved my life, and I decided to become a teacher so I could help others.

What are yoga's benefits?
Anyone can do yoga—you don't have to bend yourself into complicated positions. Just the act of taking a few deep breaths and noticing your breath is beneficial. Breathing is the foundation of any yoga practice. In fact, it's as important as the physical movements. The postures are great for relieving tension in your neck, back, and entire body. It strengthens your core and major muscle groups. Overall, yoga helps you live in the moment, slow down, and think clearly.

How did you get involved with volunteerism through yoga?
Part of the philosophy of yoga is that we're all interconnected, and service is a natural extension. I went through leadership training with Off The Mat, Into The World, which inspired me to create the 305 Spiritual Gangsters. 305 is Miami's area code, and it's called Spiritual Gangsters because I want kids to know that they can choose the high road.

How does it work?
My volunteers and I visit schools and community centers to teach kids yoga basics. I feel drawn to working in neighborhoods where crime and gangs are the norm. Some kids have no one to teach them good decision-making skills. Through yoga, we bring lessons about self-respect and the importance of controlling your body and mind. Most of all, we encourage our students to believe in themselves.

How do the children respond?
Kids are just so open. They're not as self-conscious as adults, and they love to laugh when they try out the different poses. I've been amazed with how they're also able to sit still and be quiet—a skill that we can all benefit from. If there's one thing that I know for sure it is that practicing yoga gives you strength far beyond the physical. Yoga changes lives.

Watch Terri demonstrate a few easy yoga poses appropriatete for all age and fitness levels on this video for Southern Living.

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