Offering Trauma Informed Yoga for youth who have experienced trauma, have anxiety, mental health, special needs, and for kids who love yoga!
Melissa Dierker, BSW, CYT, CPYT is the owner and instructor at Complete Harmony STL Yoga for Youth. Complete Harmony STL offers yoga classes for kids throughout the year, including the summer - and as they’re expanding into their new space, they’re looking at offering specific Spring Break and Summer Break yoga classes next year.
Melissa has such a warm energy and beautiful spirit, and I’m so excited that she agreed to interview and speak more about Complete Harmony STL!
What’s the story behind the program, and why do you like the work?
I attended yoga teacher training to take yoga classes back to the support group and camps I ran at a local non for profit. After really seeing how movement and mindfulness truly allowed a space to begin to process trauma, and work through anxieties, I left my social work position and started Complete Harmony. Working with kids who have experienced trauma, have anxiety, mental health, special need, etc has always been a passion of mine, and something I have done for over 10 years.
It brings me such joy to see kids move to certain feelings, and to use mindfulness activities to process, or try as a new coping skill. Many people ask if our yoga classes are for kids who haven't experience any of the above, and I alway say ABSOLUTELY! Our classes are a fun, inclusive space and by having everyone come together we make a stronger sense of self and community.
What supports do you provide for parents?
We know that in order for kids to be successful, taking care of families is important. One thing we offer occasionally is family yoga sessions and classes. We also know how important it can be to just have some respite and time to recharge. That is why we encourage families to go for a walk, take an adult yoga class, read a book, or do something for them while their child is in one of our classes.
What transformation do you see over the course of yoga groups?
One thing I LOVE seeing is the community and relationships that are formed in our classes. A lot of times we have kids who have difficulties making friends, who are to overwhelmed to be in classes, or who have so many friends they don't know how to allow space for others. Watching kids navigate peer relationships, while also tuning into who they are and where they are is wonderful. We also see kids reminding us of shapes, breath work, or activities that they remember from class or tried at home and how those things helped them when they needed it most.
Is there a typical length of time that you recommend kids attend yoga classes?
I always like to remind parents that kids are just like adults. They can become burnt out on activities, or love them so much they want to keep going. I would suggest following your child's lead. Yoga is all about connection. Connecting to yourself and listening to your body and needs can be overwhelming for kids who aren't use to that. If a child has taken 6 months of yoga and wants to try swimming, we encourage that. We also know that sometimes kids aren't in a yoga mood. So we have some kids who come once a month, every week, twice week. It really depends on your child.
What’s something that a parent can do to help their child really enjoy weekly yoga classes?
One thing we tend to see is parents stepping in and setting up rules around attending classes. I understand as a mom we want our kids on their best behavior, and to be respectful. For us though, that is part of the process. Letting us set up our agreements together, and figuring out what boundaries look like and what we do when they are crossed, learning how to have appropriate and successful social interactions. It's all part of the process. So as parents, take a slow breath in, and let it out slowly. Remind your child that you will be back, or will be in the waiting room when class is over, and let them know you can't wait to hear about class. Your excitement and learning what they are doing, allows you to be a part of the process and offer those simple reminders of skills they are learning if you ever need to.
What staff training do you provide for your on the ground counselors?
Complete Harmony has 2 teachers on staff and 1 substitute teacher. I have a background in social work. Grace has a background in marketing and has been taking numerous trainings to learn more about kids yoga, trauma, and mental health. She has also been doing close to a year of shadowing and interning here at Complete Harmony. Jessica is a social worker as well and subs for our classes if ever we have a family emergency or can't teach a class. I like to tell people that we don't offer counseling or therapeutic service to kids, but our classes can compliment therapy and are extremely beneficial.
How do you help kids who have behavioral issues?
Our classes generally have 6-8 kids in a class, and depending on the class and students who are coming, we have 1-2 teachers. Being prepared is always key! The great thing about yoga is there is no right or wrong way to do yoga. When we have kids who don't want to do an activity, who are yelling at us, or being impulsive we like to take a quick scan of the room and see if it is possible to switch it up, or move into a one on one scenario. By having only 6-8 kids this helps us manage the room better, and allows for all kids to be successful. I had a child in class ones who was spiraling and needing lots of attention. He was hanging on other kids, roaming the room, and couldn't quite get settled. What was great is we started doing a yoga game and he wanted to partner up and so him and I became partner the rest of the class. He was able to be successful and complete the class with a big smile, and the other kids still had fun while also offering a safe space for this child to process.
How do you work with kids who experience anxiety, including separation anxiety?
The main way we work with kids who have experienced anxiety is by acknowledging it. We talk a lot about our thoughts, feelings both physical and emotional and make a safe space to share that. When kids share about how their stomach can be in knots when they have to go to a new place, and another person in class agrees, it normalizes some of these feelings so kids don't feel isolated. We can then talk and practice ways to maybe release that knot, or make it so it doesn't last as long.
Yoga has some great shapes (poses) and breathing exercises for that. Kids with anxiety also really respond to the mindfulness activities we do. Our mindfulness exercises aren't a lay down on the mat be in your head moment. It is a color to this music, blow paint around on a canvas, stomp to the beat of the drum, really be present in what you are doing moment.
Separation anxiety is a common thing we see in classes.
While we always encourage families to either go and enjoy some time to themselves, sit in the waiting room, or outside by the garden, we understand that isn't always an option. We have had parents take the class with their child, leave something that brings comfort to the child, or we have developed some routines for kids. We have kids who like to have a clock to check and see when parents may come back, and we have kids who check out the window at certain times. What we have seen is that these routines have decreased as kids become more comfortable and safe in the space. If we can make it happen, we are willing to try it!
How does your yoga staff jump in to help when a kid starts to melt down?
When we start our classes we come to a class agreement that our mats are our space. We can do whatever we want on our mat as long as it is safe, and appropriate. We have had some kids get really angry, or really sad. When kids know that they have a space that is just for them and we encourage and utilize it, it can be really affective in calming down.
We talk about it, " I see you are really angry, would you like to spend some time on your mat alone?" We check in as the class goes one. Again, our classes are small so this is easy to add to our class structure. We also know that kids can just have really really big emotions and explode.
We know that kids can get triggered. Our main goal is for kids to be safe. If after offering a safe space, and finding some ways to ground back into the earth doesn't work, we do encourage caregivers to step in. Sometimes taking a break with a caregiver can help just enough to return to class, and thats what we want! We want your child to feel successful! Having to take a break and come back isn't failing, having to leave early and come the following week isn't failing, it is simply meeting your needs and taking care of you.
If you as a caregiver knows your child has huge melt downs, or aggressive tendencies we want you to stay near by so that your child has the opportunity to calm down and return. We always tell the kids in class, it is now a new minute and a new chance to start again. Nothing is every held against anyone. It takes a lot to show up and learn to be in your body and in the world around you. If your child makes 10 minutes of classes for a month and 15 the next, we count that all as a success!
What other information do you want parents to know about your program?
I want parents to know that we are not teaching your typical yoga class. Kids yoga is so different than a class you as an adult attends. We play games, we are LOUD, we try to be quiet, we sing, we dance, we paint, we make shapes with our bodies, we form friendships and community, we talk about our fears, we talk about our joys, and it is ALL yoga. Sometimes as adults we think things should look a certain way in order for them to "work" and then we get disappointed. Just like any things else yoga takes practice, being reminded when to use a belly breath when we are overwhelmed, and patience. When kids with trauma and anxiety come to us, they are often times not connected to their bodies, and they don't necessarily want to be. If your body didn't respond the way you wanted it to, was used for horrific things, and so much more, connecting can be extremely overwhelming. So we take it slow, and in fact we let the kids take the lead. Yoga is a pretty magical tool. I love that yoga can be one of the many tools kids and families can pull from.
Tell us about Complete Harmony's plans to expand next year:
We just opened our brand new studio. The very first trauma informed yoga studio for youth yesterday! We have some many ideas stirring in our minds, so keep watching our website. We are also excited to add more schools, non for profits, and Girl Scout troops classes this year!
How should parents contact you to learn more about yoga classes for kids in St. Louis?
If you’re a parent of an anxious, overwhelmed child, you shouldn’t have to feel alone. Curious to know more about individual therapy options at Compassionate Counseling St. Louis? Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, MSW, LCSW specializes in anxiety and anger management for kids, teens and college students in St. Louis, MO. You can set up a free phone consultation with her by visiting her website, www.compassionatecounselingstl.com/consult. We work with kids, teens, and families throughout Clayton, Brentwood, Ladue, Creve Couer, and West County. And if we’re not the best fit, we’ll help connect you with other amazing St. Louis resources, like Complete Harmony!
Please note: some of the answers have been edited for length and clarity