Yoga, Mindfulness, and Social Justice with Kids in the South Bronx

In 2012, not many people were teaching social justice through yoga and mindfulness.

Informed by her work with NYC students, Crystal McCreary developed a yoga and mindfulness curriculum that she’s shared in a wide range of settings – with youth in public and private schools and even in detention centers.

A typical class begins with the ringing of the singing bowl and flows into mindful breathing, which serves as the anchor for a mindful exploration of the connection of body, mind and heart through yoga. Through these practices, Crystal hopes her students will develop their internal awareness for skillful navigation of life’s unpredictable challenges. Her teaching supports every student’s  ability to realize their potential and thrive.

Name: Crystal McCreary
Cohort: Mindful Teacher Class of 2016
My work with kids: Yoga and Mindfulness Educator in schools and detention centers
Location: New York, NY
Connect with me on: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @cmccrearyyoga


Do you have a favorite activity to help your kids smile?

One game that I enjoy playing with my students starts in “Mountain Pose,” feeling the strength, steadiness and calm that comes from pressing their feet into the floor, firmly engaging their legs and arms, steadily focusing their gaze, with a soft buoyant belly and natural flowing, mindful breath.

Then I’ll play some upbeat music and give them specific, but fun things to do. Hop around the room on one foot, or crawl on your belly like a snake! When the music stops, the kids come “Back to Mountain!” So they get to move, play, laugh, and even get a little wild, but in a safe and contained way.

The game builds their inherent capacity to be resilient, to bounce back from silly to serene and from fun to focused in their bodies and with their breath, over and over again.

Who was the first person who believed in you, that you could do this work?

My curriculum coach Ana Vargas gave me so much when I was creating my first yoga program at a high-performing, rigorous charter school. The critic inside my mind was loud. I was getting four hours of sleep every night. I wanted to quit. I thought this should be easy for me, and it wasn’t.

Ms. Vargas had never experienced yoga in her community. We agreed that offering yoga and mindfulness in under-resourced communities was a profound act of social justice in itself.

People in education back in 2012 didn’t talk about the trauma-informed aspects of offering yoga and mindfulness to kids in school. She had a vested interest in supporting me to create an impactful program. I had no role models for teaching 400 kids twice a week in the South Bronx, in an under-resourced, high-needs community. But Ms. Vargas held me to high standards and supported the heck out of me.

How do you define a successful day?

Being hypervigilant is one way that many of my students have learned to stay safe in lives that are often overwhelmed by stressors that come from systemic oppression. So my yoga and mindfulness classes are an intentionally co-created safe space for learning, making new friends and having fun.

When my students practice pausing and reflecting on what they observe and what they feel in a given moment, that’s a real-time way for them to demonstrate their growth. When they manage their internal state rather than being reactive or impulsive in response to these stressors, when they’re engaged and taking risks to try to explore these practices, that’s success.

We adults always want to see the results of their learning right away. But the real measure is if they’re actually listening and engaged.If they’re putting their hands on their belly and their heart and taking a few deep breaths; if they feel safe enough to close their eyes, that’s measurable success.

What inspired you into taking this path?

The quality of curiosity that mindfulness inspires is my natural way of being in life. My mom jokes that it’s because my sister and I went to Montessori schools. My dad was deeply involved in meditation in my childhood – I wondered what he was doing when he was meditating in our house, sometimes for hours. Then he taught me.

But as an adult, I actually moved away from meditation. I didn’t understand the practical purpose. I didn’t see how mindfulness worked in the world. After many years of yoga practice (the asana, the physical aspect was my main focus), I found that moving my body helped soothe my nervous system and gave me more clarity of mind.

Then I started teaching yoga to kids and realized something was missing – I was being really reactive. Kids in a required yoga class are very different from adults, who come willingly to listen and follow directions. I wondered why I wasn’t effective with kids. I felt like a hypocrite. So I dialed down my physical practice and did more restorative and meditative practice.

When I took Mindfulness Fundamentals, I was surprised to learn that mindfulness meditation wasn’t a practice designed to change something. What a relief.  It didn’t light me up to sit and try to manipulate my thoughts or feelings.  I needed to sit with myself, get still enough to listen for what was inside me. What I found initially was an intense buzzing, and when I tuned into it, I cried. For weeks, every time I sat, I cried. I was holding on to so much tension. Mindfulness helps me to repeatedly let it go.

What’s your favorite fun thing to do with friends?

Karaoke. Yup, I’m that woman. I LOVE to sing. It just feels so good. All that breath and storytelling coming through, that outpouring of emotion on pitch?! It’s just the best. I used to do musical theater, and karaoke can be such an outrageous and corny setting to do it in. I have a karaoke song list on my phone at the ready for an impromptu karaoke night. I love to do it with my sisters — it’s on every family travel itinerary. We’ve gone to foreign countries, sung at a karaoke bar, and then been trailed by paparazzi-like fans afterwards. Hilarious.

Thanks Crystal for sharing your story!

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