Shakti Youth Project

Meet Our Volunteer: Emily

One of our newest volunteer teachers, Emily joined the SYP family in the 2015-16 school year. She leads the Young Achievers program for teenage boys at the Argus House each week, and inspires us daily. Get to know her here!


emilyprofilecolorWhat about Shakti Youth Project’s mission speaks to you directly? What made you want to get involved?

I love the idea of exposing youth to yoga and meditation at an early age–especially youth who would have trouble accessing what has become a costly (even classist) activity.  If they learn this powerful tool early on, they can then carry it with them for the rest of their lives.  Teens, especially, can harness the emotional, physical, and mental benefits of yoga while making the often difficult transition into adulthood.

What is your yoga background? 

I was certified in the summer of 2014 through Yoga Hawaii, a wonderful studio in Honolulu. My teachers are Maya Siklai and Stephanie Keiko Kong. I taught there until I moved to the DMV area. I love teaching restorative yoga and yoga nidra and hope to study these styles more deeply moving forward.

What is your day job/what do you do in your other life? 

I’m still figuring this part out! I just recently moved to D.C. and hope to become a social worker.

Do you volunteer with any other community programs? 

Yes. I am just starting to volunteer with JCADA (Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse). I’ll be helping to facilitate workshops for middle schools students regarding friendship issues and how to stand up for one’s peers.

What are you most excited to share with your students in those programs?

I am most excited to let this group of male adolescents feel the stillness and calm of restorative yoga poses.  Through this weekly class, I would like to provide them the opportunity to let go of everything that is outside of the present moment. Recently, Elizabeth, founder of SYP, had the group do “legs over the chair” pose, a variation of “legs up the wall.”  The room fell absolutely silent.  The group experienced true stillness and silence.

What is something you’ve learned about yourself or one way  that your life has changed as a result of practicing yoga?

Yoga has taught me to be curious about life.   I’m always interested in ways that I can be a calmer and kinder person, and how I can spread what I discover with those around me.


Meet Our Volunteer: Mary Jean

Shakti Youth Project is thrilled to have Mary Jean – or as we know her, M.J. – join our team of volunteer teachers starting in the 2015-16 school year. This fall, she’s leading our Swanson Middle School and the Girls Outreach Program classes every week in Arlington. Here’s a conversation with M.J. to help you get to know her a little better:

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 What about Shakti Youth Project’s mission speaks to you directly? What made you want to get involved?

Adolescence was tricky! Most of the time I still feel like I’m a kid trying to figure “it” all out! But now when things get sticky I can rely on my steady, peaceful yoga practice. To be a young person and know the love and grounding that comes from a good practice, one that is guided by invested teachers, is invaluable; it’s a gift to be able to share that. 

What is your yoga background? 

I’ve been practicing yoga for around three years consistently, but first encountered yoga eight years ago to help cope and recover from chronic stress fractures in my spine. In college my practice took off under incredible teachers. It was then, in the transition from college to post-graduate, I decided to take my practice to another level. Teacher training was an opportunity for me to deepen my own practice, but it became something so much more profound – that is how I found my way into seva yoga (yoga service). 

What is your day job/what do you do in your other life? 

Yoga! I work at two local studios along with other seva teaching. The other huge part of my life right now is being a graduate program candidate for clinical mental health counseling, and figuring out where my next steps might take me. 

Do you volunteer with any other community programs? 

I do! I love practicing with the women at BHI, an education-first group-housing program for young mothers and Together We Bake, an employment and personal development program for women who need a second chance. 

What are you most excited to share with your students in those programs?

Self-assurance. There is something indescribable that happens after a rigorous asana practice, after feeling a pose for the first time, or after connecting with your own self in meditation. It leaves you feeling like YOU. To me, that you-ness is the seed for true peace. I am so excited to open the space for my students to experience that. 

What is something you’ve learned about yourself or one way  that your life has changed as a result of practicing yoga?

I can be slow and still be good; yoga taught me to question whether my pace and my actions are purposeful, useful, and kind. Usually if I have to ask they probably aren’t! Skipping that extra vinyasa or holding meditation for 5 more minutes (or five minutes, period.) won’t get me fired or ruin my chances at success, it’ll actually bring me closer to life I’d like to be living.

Prison Yoga Project

On April 11th and 12th, Debra and I spent two full days alongside 26 yoga teachers from North Caroline, Virginia, Maryland, and New York who are offering free yoga and mindfulness classes or planning to teach free classes to incarcerated populations in their local areas.  Through this training sponsored by the Prison Yoga Project, we were able to engage in conversation about how the type of asana and mindfulness practice we teach necessarily varies depending on our students. The weekend was a powerful opportunity to frankly discuss safety concerns, the impact of trauma on our students and on what they may experience on the mat,  the logistics of entering a prison, the absolute importance of continuity and longevity, and the power that this practice has to transform.  I had the opportunity to be a student of the inspiring James Fox, who has been teaching inmates for years in San Quintin, California.  He and Kath Meadows led us through meditation, pranayama, asana, and a doa practice.  Biggest take-away?  Keep doing what we are doing and do more of it!  There is a growing body of research out there to back up what we have experienced first-hand on our own yoga mats – this is powerful stuff.  Here is one article highlighting the psychopsiological effects of a yoga practice:  With Gratitude ~ Elizabeth Auten, Founder, Shakti Youth Project

Taking On 2015

The close of 2014 marked the end of our third year in operation as Shakti Youth Project. It’s hard for me to believe that much time has passed since those first yoga classes with teens on the beach in Nicaragua. Three years of classes, three years of students, three years of building a community of volunteers who are dedicated to empowering youth through the practice of yoga.

To be sure, 2014 was our biggest year yet. Through the end of the 2013-2014 school year and the start of the 2014-2015 year, our local volunteers offered just over 100 free yoga classes to local students. We expanded our reach to an estimated 125 youth at four locations in Northern Virginia: the Northern Virginia Detention Center, Swanson Middle School, Girls’ Outreach Program and the Young Achievers Program. We are so grateful to have established strong partnerships with each of these organizations, and are excited for what the future holds in and beyond those communities.

In our continued effort to empower at-risk youth through global awareness and connection, we also took 12 SYP volunteers on a mission-inspired journey to Jiquilillo, Nicaragua in August. It was not only an unforgettable experience, but our largest group of participants yet. When not climbing volcanos or touring the mangrove reserve, our volunteers taught yoga to local youth, led a community beach clean-up and cooked a meal with local women to serve to children living at the garbage dump.

As I look ahead to 2015, I am ready. We are ready. Shakti Youth Project has put down its roots, and is ready to grow. We’ve already welcomed 2 new volunteers to lead our programs and guide our board, and we are in action to bring in new volunteers these coming months. This year, we will be partnering with Arlington Parks and Recreation to offer more classes and expanding our partnerships outside of Arlington. We’re embarking on 2015 as a year of bold action and commitment – are you ready to come with us?

– Elizabeth Auten, Founder & Executive Director

Join us in November for the Meditation Challenge!


2012 Participant Feedback

Here is what our youth participants wrote in anonymous surveys following the 2012-2013 programs:

“I felt relaxed during yoga, and happy.”
“I feel more aware of everything.”
“I came because I thought it would relax me.  I came home more focused.”
“I learned to help calm me by doing some breathing exercises. She taught us to breathe through one nostril and out the other”

9 out of 10 youth answered “True” to “Did the SYP Program teach you coping skills and tools to better manage stress and difficult emotions?”

Swanson Middle School Pilot 2012-2013

Note from Elizabeth on December 6, 2012: Classes are in full swing with 10 participants and growing!  These 6th-8th graders inspire me every Tuesday and Thursday morning bright and early at 7:20am for 20 minutes of meditation, asana, and reflection.

Check back soon for quotes from our participants.