Sandusky Recreation and Open Way Yoga collaboration bring new voices to yoga instructor program

Yoga has been an integral part of Patricia Ruffin’s life for years.

“My whole being is in yoga, because I watch my breath instead of being out of breath,” Ruffin says. “I gained more breathing skills. So for me, I just knew I wanted to teach the culture shifting of ‘You can do yoga and still get a workout.’ But it's a work within.” 

Now the Sandusky resident is looking forward to sharing that work with the community and, most notably, with youth in the school setting. 

“You don't know what they came to school with,” she says. “Guilt, shame, grief, it's all trauma in the body.”

Ruffin is one of four students who is benefitting from grant funding to become a yoga instructor through a collaboration with Sandusky Recreation and Open Way Yoga. The groups received a grant from the Erie County Community Foundation to offer instruction for a diverse staff of yoga mindfulness teachers who can offer targeted programming to a diverse group of area residents. 

The 200-hour Yoga Instructor Course, taught by Open Way’s Brian Henderson and Shannon Thomas, is an immersive and experiential program that gives students an opportunity to dive into the yoga experience on many levels, according to the OWY teacher training page.

Sessions take place at both the Open Way Yoga studio in Huron and at Sandusky Recreation on Mills Street in Sandusky.

As part of the program, students can “focus on styles, traditions and concepts that are of personal interest, while also focusing on creating a lifestyle that supports overall health and vitality,” according to the OWY teacher training page.

“If somebody were to say, ‘I can't do all that bending and turning,’ I would say my most healing came from within."Those are all areas Ruffin has embraced throughout her yoga practice and, now, through the instructor program. She has been “on the mat” prior to the instructor training, both with Yoga at the Pier and with free yoga classes through the Sandusky City Schools Wellness Program.

Before the pandemic hit, Ruffin was one of the only women of color who consistently were attending classes with Open Way, Thomas says. Her dedication to the practice caught the attention of Thomas and Henderson, who approached her to be a yoga instructor. At that time, Ruffin declined.

"Fast forward to us working on this program and we knew Patricia would be someone who could dig into the experience," Thomas says. "Patricia embodies the practice. She's an ambassador who can voice, 'This can help you.' As yoga teachers, we teach from our own experiences in our own bodies and own lives."

Ruffin, who has worked in the Sandusky City Schools system for 24 years and is “a Blue Streak through and through,” hopes to work with youth in the school system to help them identify and respond to trauma. She has worked with students from preschool through 12th grade as an aide in behavioral classrooms and now works as the receptionist at the Board of Education.

“I think that there's a need with the trauma in the teenage years, and the hormonal things that we go through,” she says. “And in trying to still be in our bodies, instead of connecting to the outside world, and giving pieces of our minds to the world, we don't have full control of what we are, who we are, already.

“I think it's from experience working with seventh and eighth graders–middle school–they have so many things that they're going through with their bodies. Puberty, and male and female bodies–’Why is my body doing this?’--And there's a shame to what you are going through, because your peers are telling you, ‘You're too big,’ or the commercials or social media, when all I want to do is embrace me. But I don't know that I need to embrace me.”

Ruffin believes if young adults understand who they are that they will be more accepting of themselves.

“Therefore, I won't deal with the body shaming as easily,” she says. “I won't be pulled into the body shaming, or the bullying of it, because I'm certain of who I am in my body.”

Being certain of who she was was something Ruffin dealt with as a child. Coping with adolescence, along with her brother’s death on the eve of Thanksgiving 40 years ago, have played integral parts in her life.

Members of the Yoga Instructor Program go through breathing exercises during a training session in November.“So here I am, in this moment, in this time, remembering my childhood, remembering the things that I didn't deal with because culturally we don't deal with grief,” she says. “And so I'm dealing with it.”

Ruffin believes that while people may deal with trauma, they may not deal with it in healthy ways. This was true of her situation after her brother’s death.

“For years I was frozen,” she says. “And then I transferred out; I'm a skin picker, and I can now see I was too vulnerable to let people know that.”

This turned into a cycle. She was ashamed that she was picking at her skin, but she didn’t understand why she was doing it or how to stop. She also didn’t know how to respond when her family members would try to get her to stop.

“People would say, ‘What’s wrong with your hands?’ But they didn’t understand about the trauma we all faced and dealt with differently from my brother’s death,” she explains. “I chose this way to deal with my brother’s death. Now I know that, but it’s 40 years (later). But some kids don't know when they're in trauma.”

Ruffin says yoga has taught her to be in tune with her body, both physically and emotionally.

“If I sit and I learn about my body, then I learn what fear feels like,” she says. “When I’m scared, what does that feel like, then I learn breath work through yoga. Then I become conscious of ‘Why am I doing this? Was it sensory?’ We’re back to the senses.”

Ruffin hopes to teach youth about getting in touch with those senses so they can perform to their highest level, both in and out of school.

“We daydream a lot as kids when we don’t know how to deal with certain things, even a math problem,” she says. “We're checking out, we're spacing, we're staring at things. But if you can learn breath work, and start to even feel the depths that you're sitting in, then you become present with the teacher. If I say, focus on something in the classroom, because there's always a sight word at the front of the classroom, you pick one, whatever their empowerment word is for you that day. And then you're able to focus on that, and then your senses become heightened.”

Ruffin hopes that awareness of the senses that is taught in yoga can help students identify their own emotions and then, in turn, help them connect in the classroom. 

“So then you're hearing the teacher, and she may not be yelling, she may not be tricking you at all, you're just triggered by everything that went on before you got to the class, or because you  went in the bathroom, and somebody already called you a name and then you’re gone,” Ruffin elaborates. “But if you can center yourself, and then begin to look at things that are in your environment that are safe–because our school system is supposed to be a safety–and then you begin to connect with ‘What am I feeling right now?’”

Ruffin would like to teach students to then channel that recognition into writing.

“Then you can deal with it,” she says, “then there becomes a need for written communication. Then there's the journaling aspect, because now I've connected with my thoughts and my body. And now I become a journalist. Now I become a writer, now I become the poetic person that can start to say what my body's doing, because we need expression.

And then therefore the healing, the depression is lessened. When you begin to be able to pour your words from your heart, on paper, then the real work begins because later on from 13, then when I become 21, if I connected with journaling, my feelings matter and I no longer have to have them here because I empty out my heart on paper. And then they no longer dictate me. I can understand what I have found within me and I put it into words that I can read. It's like, ‘Have I grown?’ I remember when (I acted out), but I don't do that anymore. Because I have the tools that I learned from yoga.”

Ruffin has taken that same training and applied it to her own life.

“I have notebooks that I titled ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Insight,’ and as things come to me, or when I go home, I might not talk to anybody because I'm pouring it out,” she says. “All of that came out  on the mat.”

Ruffin wants people to know that yoga is for everyone. The grant funding, which helped Ruffin and others to be part of the Yoga Instructor Program, is bringing a more diverse voice into the yoga community.

“Look within,” she says. “If somebody were to say, ‘I can't do all that bending and turning,’ I would say my most healing came from within. I'm the most successful in my yoga practice because I go within, and it's not gonna bother me if I can't bend over or do whatever, because I'm doing the work inside.

“I call it master on the mat. I've discovered more things emotionally–emotionally healing for myself–on the mat.”