In the counseling office of School 66 North Park Middle Academy, two fifth-graders planted their hands and feet onto yoga mats.
Heads facing the mats, they ground their fingers and heels onto opposite ends and pushed their hips up high, social worker Mary Jo Gervase recalled.
The boys, who frequently disrespected teachers and fought with classmates, moved out of downward facing dog and into other yoga poses: upward dog, gorilla pose, tree pose.
Somewhere along the way, the students had a realization: Sometimes, you just have to breathe.
Gervase sees student after student struggle with sadness, anxiety and anger because of their traumatic backgrounds – some are homeless, others lost family members from shootings, many lose sleep from domestic violence or have incarcerated parents.
She believes yoga counteracts their inclinations to misbehave. On Sunday, her dream to bring yoga to more Buffalo Public Schools students came to fruition. A Manhattan yoga studio had 200 extra mats to donate, and Gervase is dispersing them to North Park Middle Academy, City Honors School, School 32 Bennett Park Montessori and School 54 Dr. George E. Blackman School of Excellence. Jason Ross Brown, a Buffalo native who lives in San Francisco, happened to be in New York City this weekend, saw Gervase’s ad on Craigslist and offered to drive the mats to Buffalo.
“I am in awe,” Gervase said Sunday as she, Brown and a group of her family and friends unloaded his truck at The Foundry, a workshop space for artists on Northampton Street where Gervase will store the mats this summer. “I am so happy. I just can’t believe the whole thing came together.”
Two years ago, while counseling at School 54, Gervase started a therapeutic and preventative yoga program, bringing mats in from home and using the carpeted floor when she didn’t have enough. She posted an ad on the Bolder Mat Company’s website requesting donated yoga mats.
Just last week, the owner of Manhattan’s Yoga Vida saw Gervase’s request, called her and said she had 200 used mats that needed a new home. The mats are worth about $7,000 all together.
Gervase needed a way to get the mats to Buffalo, so she posted an ad on Craiglist. Friday, Brown called Gervase and said he’d be happy to drop them off as he’s visiting family today, anyway.
“I’ll look for the results, I’ll look for what yoga does,” said Brown, a City Honors alumnus.
Gervase has already seen students at North Park and School 54 take anger and sadness stored in their bodies and get it out through yoga.
“I remember a fifth-grade special-education boy telling me, we did [yoga] in the fall, and then in the spring he was in the main office,” Gervase recalled. “And I was like, ‘What could you have done differently?’ ‘I could’ve breathed in deeply and counted to 10.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe he remembered that.’ ”
She hopes the 200 mats expand her effort to teach students that by breathing and physically moving, they can clear their minds and make better decisions.
There’s a Dalai Lama quote Gervase swears is the key to teaching children how to control their aggression: “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence in one generation.”
Come fall, Gervase will disperse the yoga mats and give it a shot.