T here are 108 beads on a mala, as well as on a rosary. There are 108 sounds in the Sanskrit alphabet, 108 names for Buddha and 108 stitches around a baseball. Until last night, it’d been 108 years since the Cubs won the World Series.
“Now that I’ve told you about it, you’re going to see the number everywhere,” Peg Oliveira says. Oliveira is the founder and the executive director of 108 Monkeys, a “yoga service movement” that began nearly five years ago. The number that inspired its name is a “symbol for wholeness,” according to Oliveira, who believes yoga “isn’t just poses on a mat. It’s more comprehensive. It’s a lifestyle.”
That lifestyle comes with physical and mental benefits Oliveira believes are closer to universal rights than incidental privileges. Loosening tight hamstrings or perfecting a headstand is only the tip of the iceberg. Yoga is “really useful for engaging the front brain instead of the back brain,” Oliveira says. The “front brain,” or frontal lobe, “allows us to self-regulate. To stop when we want to go. To be quiet when we want to talk.” These skills of introspection and control are, according to Oliveira, predictions of success more generally.
That’s the underlying belief behind 108 Monkeys’s youth-oriented programs, which Oliveira says have begun to see “phenomenal results.” Since it began, the organization has partnered with New Haven Academy, a high school that prides itself on fostering independent thinkers, and in that time they’ve found that students who participate in yoga programs have “a reduction in behavior referrals, reductions in suspensions and expulsions and increases in academic performance,” Oliveira says.
NHA’s program director Meredith Gavrin agrees that the school’s students, most of whom “live at a frenetic pace,” are better able to manage their stress if they participate in yoga. “It’s amazing to watch them in yoga class where they are silent, breathing deeply, holding poses for stretches of time and, at the end of class, lying in repose—things they never otherwise have the space to do in their day-to-day lives,” she says.
Even when it’s less than peaceful, there’s a benefit. Two years ago, Oliveira ran an intensive, semester-long class at NHA, meeting three times a week with 90 freshmen. “The complications that come along with teaching mandatory yoga to ninth-graders are infinite,” she says. Towards the end of the semester, one of her students was pelted with a marker and went running out of class towards his assailant. “I was feeling quite sure a fight was about to break out,” Oliveira says, but the student returned almost immediately and rejoined his fellow yogis. Oliveira was thrilled. “That’s what this whole class is about… Even if first you want to react, you pause, take a breath, think about the ramifications of your next action and then make a conscious choice,” Oliveira says.
108 Monkeys is dedicated to bringing yoga to those who don’t typically have access to it, which means teaching at mental health clinics and shelters in addition to public schools, since youth have traditionally been overlooked by yogis. The problem of access gave Oliveira fits at first. “It’s not just a ‘build it and they will come’ sort of thing,” she says. While the $20 price tag on standard yoga classes can be prohibitive on its own, “it’s not just a money issue” that 108 Monkeys tries to address.
“Sometimes there’s not a yoga studio nearby,” Oliveira says. “Or there is a yoga studio, but when I go in there, I look different from everyone else… Creating spaces that are welcoming no matter your color, your gender, your size, where you come from and what you’re like—that’s the accessibility challenge in yoga.”
While bringing the practice “out of the studio and into the streets” is 108’s primary goal, Oliveira wants to dispel the idea that she and the other instructors are just there to give their knowledge to a passive audience. “Even though we’re coming in to give yoga… it’s also an opportunity to receive. They have as much to give to us as we have to give to them. And that’s what yoga is—it’s a connecting. It’s two things coming together in a transformative process to create something wholly different for all involved, not just for half of those involved,” she says.
Last Thursday, on the first snowy day of late 2016, more than 20 NHA students limbered up on yoga mats as part of the school’s annual Endeavors Day, where they sign up to try something new. The usual giggles and apathetic poses of high schoolers gave way to a focused practice. While it’s unreasonable to expect first exposures to yoga to be revelatory for everyone, Oliveira hopes it’ll be a step for some of the attendees, encouraging them to sign up for the elective yoga class 108 holds regularly at NHA, or even just allowing them to experience what Oliveira did when she first began yoga: the simple pleasure of remembering that “you have a body, and more importantly, you’re in control of that body—what happens to your body is entirely up to you, and you own it.”
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.