Leonor is a Costa Rican Clinical and Heath psychologist that moved to Ireland in 2011 to carry out her PhD in Child and Youth Research in NUI Galway. Currently Leonor works as a post-doctoral researcher in the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre. Leonor has dedicated many years of her life to working with children, young people and families particularity those with chronic illness. Leonor is interested in the use of alternative therapies in her psychology practice and is currently working as a kids yoga teacher in her own kids yoga business called Pekes Yoga.
How did you first come to yoga?
I was always interested in it, when I was in college at home we had a teacher who was teaching us psychology but she was also a yoga teacher and into alternative therapy. The first class I did was with her and since then I was always interested in it but I never actually got myself to take it as seriously as I take it now – so I think this teacher was the inspiration for that.
Then when I came to Ireland and I was doing my PhD I needed something to distract myself with and to have something else to focus my energy on. There was a time when I was really sick from doing the PhD and I knew I had to do something.
Then I had a teacher called Aisling, from Optimum Health come to do pre-natal yoga with a class of nurses and midwives that I was teaching. Aisling was talking about yoga and India and training over there and I was sick and interested and when she came along the whole message made sense and I just booked the retreat and training with Siddhi Yoga in Dharamsala, India and then off I went.
Did you have an idea of what yoga was before you started?
Yes and no, because in our culture it is very physically focused so when you come in contact with yoga it is more the physical side of it. It was only when I went to do the training in India that I learned where it came from , all the different aspects that yoga has – the mental, the spiritual and the traditional aspect of it that I was not completely familiar with.
From the beginning I did the training because I wanted to understand what I was doing, it is just the way my head works – I need to know why I am doing something instead of just doing it. That is why I did the training without thinking that I would end up being a teacher at all.
Had you been to India before you went over to do your training?
No I didn’t, I had no idea where I was going, I didn’t know anything about it, I just ended up there and it was definitely a big culture shock. It is very intensive doing a teacher training and spending so many hours just talking about yoga and listening about yoga – not the asana part, I loved that. It is just the whole notion of the cultural background and the cultural differences and lots of strangers there on a kind of similar journey to you who you didn’t know but it is a very interesting process when you are there. You have nowhere to go and it was really strong and tougher than I expected but I think it was a very good experience and I did enjoy it in the end.
India is a very peculiar place and very different to our culture. For me it was very different to see how they view women and treat women and that for me was a shock, probably because I am used to the western culture where you can ask questions and be interested in things and women are, to a certain degree, treated in an equal way and when I was in India you certainly are not.
How did your idea of yoga change when you began to practice yoga?
I think I respect yoga even more now that I understand what it actually is and where it comes from. I think I was missing out on what yoga really is because of the western perspective. I thought yoga was just the asana and the postures and this is what we do and how we breathe but I learned it is actually a whole philosophy and tradition and a way of life really – all of that I didn’t understand before I studied it deeper. So now my view of yoga is wider.
Did you find your lifestyle changed? Your attitude or your life in general?
Definitely, yes and in many ways. I think when you become a teacher you need to practice what you preach and try to get the message of how yoga changes your life so that people understand, above and beyond the research studies that exist now and the evidence of what yoga can do, but that you should be a walking example of what yoga did to your life.
For me, at the time that I started I was under a lot of pressure and very focused on only studying, studying, studying and I found a nice relaxing break in yoga and something that inspired me. Yoga really slowed me down and slowed my mind down and allowed me to take the time, because even if I was running and doing sports they didn’t really calm me down, it distracted me for a while but it was yoga that gives you that moment to take the time to think or do whatever you need to do but to just take the time. Before I wouldn’t take the time to do anything, I just felt I was on automatic mode going on and on and on- so that is what yoga became for me and it is something I adore and now it is something I adore and get to do with the children. I have loads of fun doing what I am doing and I have loads of time with the kids and I just like doing it.
How did you get into teaching kids yoga?
Before I went to India I saw a random advert online for a Mini Me Yoga workshop happening in Galway, which I said I was going to go to but then in the end I didn’t go but it was always at the back of my mind. So when I came back from India I decided to look them up, signed up for a workshop in Kerry, traveled down especially for it and that is how I started.
You first begin with the workshop, thenyou become an ambassador and start training more and more in their programs and then I went on and did the Rainbow Kids yoga Training. At the moment I am mix of both of those programs, I love buying books and yoga story books and I am always looking for different props and things to use with the kids. Now it is just my hobby to buy different things, to create things and make my own stories – it is just something I really like doing.
Can you describe a little bit how the kids take to it all ? Do they change over the course of the classes? What do they seem to enjoy the most about doing yoga?
Generally, as with most things, all the different kids bring their own personality with them. Some are really excited about the toys and love the props and playing with them and some are really creative. Amazingly, I had – what I thought- were all these amazing props and I also had a simple mat with pictures of different asanas (postures) on it and I just had it left on the floor and ignored it and interestingly some of the kids just started copying the pictures on the mat and making the shapes on the mat. I hadn’t expected that to become a prop! It just reminds you that you can have a plan for the class but eventually the class becomes what they want it to become.
Once they get more used to you and more used to the activities they start to ask can they play different games and activities, they start to remember the games and ask for different games and the level of confidence in them to see you as an equal starts developing, I think.
The magic of yoga is that we are all the same and we start to become the same – I don’t become the child, they still know I am the teacher but I am playing with them and if I have to roll myself on the floor or if we are doing different things I sometimes start to let them make me their statue and turn me into all the different sort of shapes that they can imagine and it is a very horizontal relationship teaching yoga to children and I like that and I think they like that too.
As usual some of them start off being shy and they are shy of you but eventually then eventually they trust you and start playing with you and it is really dependent on the age. The little ones at the beginning for example, some of the will freely let their parents go while others you need to be a bit more careful or slow and my assistant will give them a bit more attention. I always have an assistant there as some kids need more attention from her, while I run with the rest of the group she is there.
All of the kids bring something different to the class and it is really interesting to just see how their personalities come out in the class.
Is there any aspect of the philosophy of yoga in the class or are they interested in it at all?
I do tell them what yoga is about, in very simple terms. I use the Mini Me Yoga definition, that people started copying the shapes of animals and nature long ago – like the trees and how animals move and that for many, many years they practiced these shapes and forms and that is now what we call yoga and that is why we do these shapes and forms so that we can become strong in our bodies and our minds. It is a very simple explanation for the little ones and for the bigger ones I start telling them the names of poses and alignment, so depending on where they are I just give them a very simple definition and from then on I start building on different aspects of yoga.
How about the parents. Are most of them already familiar or practicing yoga themselves or why did they decide to bring their kids to yoga?
Generally the parents are into yoga themselves, which is an advantage because you don’t have to go through all of the details of what yoga is. Usually you get parents who have practiced yoga before or who have some experience on mindfulness or breathing or something like that and they bring the kids because they have an interest themselves. Other times I meet parents who come to my adult workshops and they bring their kids and they already know the principles of the yoga behind what we teach them.
So, yeah the advantage of all this is that the parents come to the class with an open mind and you don’t have to convince parents of the benefits of yoga. When they bring their kids there is already a level of trust and that has to be there – in you and what you are doing and so I always find that the parents are open minded and that they really want their kids to like this, which is an advantage for me because them the kids are already partially engaged in the idea of yoga and what it is.
Do you think that yoga could be of benefit in mainstream education?
Definitely. I was actually talking to a girl who is evaluating a yoga program in schools and she asked me if I knew of any research that is going on at the moment, Mini-me Yoga is doing that research and I also found some recent articles about the benefits of having yoga in schools.
I definitely think that the evidence is showing that it is a nice way of introducing kids to positive thinking, positive attitudes and it also has the cognitive advantages of improving concentration, improving meta-cognitive abilities, improving socialization, improving emotional management and interactions and just being mindful and kind to others and understanding where my space is and where your space is There are loads of benefits that I have seen in the classes myself but also that are coming up in the research, which is very important that people are doing research on all of this at the moment and the benefits of yoga.
There are specific programs of yoga for schools which specifically do asanas using the child’s desk or how to use the child’s chair so it is really focused on the school and classroom environment, which is very interesting.
It might not be the most formal scenario but I do see things coming up about how schools change detention time for mindfulness time and the difference of that is that it goes from a punishment perspective to a more positive approach of ‘I did something and I am going to think about it’ but not have the added burden of a punishment. We all get angry, we all loose our patience, we all have to learn how to deal with that in a way that doesn’t hurt other people or hurt ourselves, but really how can any adults tell us that being angry is wrong? They have been angry, the get angry themselves- so the message there was completely wrong in a way. I just read that new approach and I liked it, in a way moving to a more positive perspective and away from this punishment idea.
What is your background in yoga?
I was trained in different types of yoga – hatha, vinyasa, therapeutic yoga and children’s yoga is as far as I know understood as a type of yoga in itself. I don’t prescribe to a specific background, but the style I practice myself- solely out of my own personal preference to the style- is vinyasa yoga or sometimes hatha, depending on my energy levels. I don’t have a particular background, I flow from one to the other depending on how I feel.
Anything else you would like to say about yoga?
It is interesting when people find out that I am a yoga teacher and they don’t know because I always look like the researcher or the psychologist and so people sometimes don’t associate me with yoga. So many people turn around and say ‘Oh yoga, I have been meaning to try that’ or ‘I have been thinking or waiting to try that’ – if I could count the amount of people who have said that to me then I could have a whole school of people practicing yoga, so if anything I just tell people that if you have ever felt like trying yoga, then just try it.
It doesn’t matter what other people say you should feel or what you should do- if you have this want to try it out then go and do it, that is how I got into yoga – I was interested in it and it has completely changed my life and it is part of my every day life and one of the things that makes me really, really happy.
Just to be with the kids and have fun with each other and teach adults how to do yoga with kids and see them making silly noises doing a lion’s pose or dragon’s breath and they convert themselves into these magical creatures – and these were adults who at the beginning looked at me as if to say ‘what is wrong with you?’. It is wonderful to see them just go into it and to have fun and let go.
So if you are one of those people who has ever thought about doing yoga, then just go and do it. Once in your life, do it and then you might not like it or you could end up like me and love it.
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