Indigenous Mom on the Mat: Heather Cherisse-Curtis Stretches The Reach of Youth Yoga
“One of my biggest invitations to you is to not take yourself too seriously. Don't worry about what the person next to you looks like. Don't worry about how I look doing the pose,” youth yoga teacher Heather Cherisse-Curtis shares in her opening to a class of new youth. She lives in the Williams Lake area after relocating from Kamloops. She wanted to offer services in rural and remote Indigenous communities that don't have as much access as larger centers and she has been working with the local school district on exciting projects.
She found her purpose after becoming a parent delayed her business aspirations. “I went to a yoga class back in 2016 and as a busy mom of two, when I sat down on my mat, and was able to just come into that place of quiet stillness, shut off that monkey mind and just concentrate on my practice, it almost sparked a light inside me. It was like, ‘this is the bridge on how you work with youth’'."
Being an entrepreneur can come with financial instability but knowing she’s giving youth tools they can use for a lifetime is something she finds more valuable than a steady paycheck. Yoga was something she could offer without a team of staff and she saw a real need for it in such a busy world, particularly for youth. “Our youth are bombarded. They're growing up in an age of technology and…often when I'm in class, when I bring them into that place of quiet or stillness, they really struggle with it, because it's not something that they're used to doing or getting,” she explains.
The local school district invited her to teach weekly yoga sessions and some professional development day training. Reaching out to communities, some are eager, while others are unsure. The pandemics slowed things down and she’s hoping to do more in community as things open up.
Working with Connected North to deliver virtual sessions has made her mission of bringing yoga to kids who wouldn’t normally have access easier because of all the logistical support.
“I think that there's so much value in learning to take a minute to acknowledge your feelings and to take a moment of rest.”
Yoga wasn’t Cherisse-Curtis’ original plan. She wasn’t sure what to do when she graduated from high school, then did a bachelor’s degree in business. She worked in hospitality, customer service, proposal writing and consulting and economic development. The National Aboriginal Women's Council funded her 200 hour yoga teacher training as she shifted focus. Next, she took Vinyasa Yoga for Youth teacher training and has worked with their non profit, offering yoga in schools and with youth. She’s working towards delivering a 25 hour yoga for youth teacher training in her area to get more teachers trained. Her experience as a mom helps her be playful and adapt when kids aren’t engaging with her planned sequence.
“My job here isn't to make you fall in love with yoga. It's not to make you do yoga in these poses. My goal is to give you some tools, it's to have some fun, we're gonna get playful.”
Cherisse-Curtis likes to focus students on gratitude towards themselves and others. She wishes she had savoured the time she had growing up with her grandparents on their farm more, but leaving home brought its own rewards. “I think one of the best things I did was to go out and broaden those horizons,” she smiles. Moving down south, living in a bigger city, opened up who she was as a person and she found self-confidence. In moments of self-doubt she remembers, “just because I'm having these thoughts doesn't mean they're mine and it doesn't make them true.” She suggests finding support systems and people who share similar goals to stay out of negative self-talk.
Growing up, she faced a feeling of shame about being Indigenous. “I don't feel like I was proud of my roots as an Indigenous woman. Growing up in an isolated community, with 80% of the people that around me had been to residential school, there was this massive amount of shame for being who I was. I didn't even realize that I was carrying that until I was much older, and I started unpacking some stuff,” she recalls.
Unkind things that had been said to her in childhood contributed to a lack of self-confidence in adulthood. She was motivated to get an education so she could take care of herself, after watching her parents struggle with alcoholism. The grief of losing close family members was also hard and she got through it by finding purpose in her challenges. Working full time through university, she was exhausted and not as present as she wanted to be, but she was driven to succeed and found earning her own money helped her self esteem. If she could go back and say anything to her younger self it would be, “you are worthy of love,” a lesson she keeps teaching herself.
“I've really learned to lean in at a young age to Mother Earth because she's always gonna be there. Anywhere you are in the world, you can access Mother Earth.”
Growing up, she didn’t learn much about mental health but she learned to cope through tough times by connecting with nature. She loves canoeing, paddleboarding, spending time by the river and even just sitting on the grass. Cherisse-Curtis seeks out traditional healing modalities, keeping her mind active on positive things and getting back to the land. “There is something magical and beautiful about sitting outside early in the morning and hearing the birds chirp,” she reflects, thinking about how the sound reminds her of her grandma.
These days she likes to start her day teaching yoga with the kids of Connected North because it puts her in the right frame of mind for getting things done. Helping kids to slow down while finding gratitude and joy is something she does with grace, extending an invitation to stretch and play and not take oneself too seriously. She followed the light that sparked inside her that day on the mat and now she shines in delight at the bridge she found to work with youth.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.