Local Hero – Tracey Stockalper
Who: Tracey Stockalper, co-owner, Yoga Tropics, Encinitas, Calif.
Why she’s a hero: She has taken yoga’s message of peace, love, self-acceptance and empowerment to improve the lives of students at schools throughout San Diego County and, more recently, of young patients at the Rady Children’s Hospital’s (RCH) oncology unit.
How yoga came into her life: “I always looked up to my older sister. When I was 13, I watched her go through four ACL tears and three surgeries as a result of basketball injuries. I was really alarmed for her. It also made me reconsider my own future. I was a basketball player myself and was thinking about playing in high school and, maybe, college. I come from a basketball family, so I always felt compelled to play. My dad played professionally in Europe for several Swiss teams from the mid-80's to the late 90s. My brother and sister both were serious about the sport in high school. My dad was my coach on several different teams I played for as a kid, both in Switzerland, where I was born, and after we moved to the United States. My sister’s physical therapist introduced her to Bikram yoga as part of her rehabilitation. Amazed by the results (not only for her bad knee but for its effect on her the entire body inside and out with such low-impact and the feeling at peace it gave her), she got our whole family into hot yoga.”
How she went from being an avid student to being a yoga dropout and then answered the call to teach: “I practiced Bikram yoga for six years straight (six days a week, three hours (two-back-to-back classes) per day). At 19, I went off to college and moved into the dorms at San Diego State University as a pre-nursing major. I got caught up in the day-to-day routine of being a college freshman living on campus and stopped practicing regularly. I took classes here and there and even taught a few classes to myself and the other kids in the dorm—especially when we grew restless from studying for midterms and finals. But I didn’t feel inspired enough to practice regularly. No classes that were close by really clicked with me like a Bikram class. Half-way through my freshman year, my mom called to say that we were opening a new business: a hot yoga studio called Yoga Tropics. I wasn't really interested in teaching yoga at the time, but I knew I wanted to be involved. My mom and sister, who had both been teaching yoga at San Diego County Bikram studios for five-plus years (my mom initially part-time, then
full-time once she decided to quit her job commuting to LA as an attorney and my sister part-time as she finished her B.A. in Visual Arts and Media from University of California San Diego), decided it was time to train me to teach.”
Why she almost didn’t pick up the karmic phone: “Initially, I didn't really like the idea of teaching. I had always loved practicing. But public speaking was never my strong point until I really fell in love not only with doing yoga, but with being able to get other people to fall in love with it, too. I found a new purpose I never would have learned without teaching. Nothing was—and is--better to me than teaching a student good alignment and biomechanics in order to benefit her or his health and strength physically and mentally.”
How another hero set her on her path: “I had been teaching yoga and running Yoga Tropics with my mom and sister for five years when I met Gloria O’Shea (Learn more about this Local Hero at: http://www.yogapaws.com/yoga-teachers-/-local-heroes), the founder of the Sean O’Shea Foundation (SOSF). She told me about how she lost her son in a car accident, and all of the karma yoga he had been doing by reaching out to at-risk kids in the community to teach them yoga while running his own studio, Four Seasons Yoga. I couldn't help but feel inspired, not only by Sean's life, but by his family's love and desire to carry on his purpose. Shortly after meeting Gloria and her daughter Mercedes (who is also very involved with the Foundation), I started teaching at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools all around San Diego County. I wanted to spread what I had found in my practice of yoga: physically, how I had lost the 25 pounds I had gained from living in the dorms, eating poorly and not practicing; mentally, how I was able to find calm and to rid myself of anything that was getting in the way of harnessing my full potential; spiritually, how I began to connect with myself and those around me more effectively and to spark my curiosity in meditation.”
How one good deed led to another: “My teaching team with SOSF decided to make a presentation to RCH to create a yoga program for the oncology unit. I felt a little nervous initially about presenting examples of what poses/routines we would do, but it helped that my mom had a background in medicine from attending medical school for two years. I talked with her and did my own research to try to understand what it’s like for a child who has cancer and has to undergo chemotherapy. Another of our team’s teachers had completed a training course specifically for teaching students with cancer. We learned from each other and used all of that knowledge to develop programs like a ‘yoga in bed’ sequence so that kids could do light stretches without having to leave the comfort of their bed. We had to create sequences with a lot of modifications and variations because chemo has such a range of side effects—from nausea and overall fatigue to trouble balancing and lack of coordination.”
How she makes yoga work for kids with cancer: “I went into RCH with an open mind as to what kind of routines would be done each day and with whom. Every day at RCH is different. Most days we work with kids in their rooms. We always ask the kids, their parents/guardians as well as their nurses if they are feeling up to doing yoga. We begin with a little breath work and light stretching. Sometimes, when kids are fearful (mostly because they have never tried yoga before), we do little demos of easy asanas. On some occasions, we just hang out with the kids and will draw, play, dance and sing. Some days we work with parents who are waiting anxiously for their kids, teaching them breath work and a light stretching practice in the common area.”
How her karma yoga at RCH has helped her become a better teacher: “Having to ‘sell’ yoga to those who have never tried it has its challenges. But once we get going with the kids, they love it. We have not had any kids who began to do yoga complain or say they don’t want to do it anymore. Going to RCH is one of my favorite parts of being a yoga teacher. Teaching for therapy is therapy in itself. And working with people who are reluctantly trying something you are passionate about for the first time and feeling its benefits immediately--there's no better feeling than that.”
How yoga helps young people cope: “For me, yoga helped me through the awkwardness that puberty can bring, through emotional and physical trauma, and through finding my purpose and passion. I have seen kids build confidence and strength, both physically and mentally. I have seen firsthand the benefits of deepening the breath and finding times of stillness or meditation. Yoga teaches people to get out of their own way, out of their head, and connect with their true essence, void of the distraction from within and from the external environment. In the schools, I have seen kids who were the ‘bully’ of the group surrender their ego and be nice to those around them. I have spoken with several teenage girls who expressed interest in teaching in the future, and I have seen kids progress in their practice and try new poses they were afraid of. At RCH, I have seen kids laugh, smile, relax, meditate and try new asanas. On one occasion, a little boy who was walking by the common area where we were teaching a mom and her daughter just came by to join us in the practice.”
What poses are cool: “It really depends on who you're working with. At RCH, it may come down to what the kids feel up to doing. The ones who can stand and practice tend
to love the one-legged balancing poses, like tree pose and dancing shiva, and animal poses/exercises, like cat/cow. The kids who are practicing in bed tend to love twists and savasana. If time allows, we usually do visualization techniques while the kids rest in savasana to give them an outlet to really enjoy their relaxation.”
How yoga helps her cope in the face of kids’ pain: “I remind myself that what I have learned is invaluable to my own health and well-being. I am able to detach from the sadness I feel towards their discomfort, and just try to help them (as they help me) find presence. If I can make one kid smile during a shift, that's yoga to me. I concentrate on connection, unity, gratitude and happiness.”
What she’s learned from her young students: “The kids have taught me acceptance and surrender into whatever challenges we are faced with. No matter how hard life gets, negativity should have no place. Life is too precious.
Who are the heroes for this hero: “My mentors have mostly been my older sister, Carla Stockalper, and my mom, Margaret Stockalper. Without my sister, I never would have tried yoga, and, without my mom, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to teach from such a young age and have the six years of teaching experience I have at 24. Other mentors in developing my personal practice have been Tim Miller, Rich McGowan, who is in the Rady's program with me and is Tim Miller's assistant, Jano Galindo, Kristyan Stjerne, Marck Jansen and Reegan Lessie.
How she plans to build on her karma yoga work: “My next step as a warrior for change is to inspire through music. I am an aspiring singer and would love to implement music into my yoga teaching. I'd also love to free up more time to volunteer teach.”
What she tells people who want to follow in her footsteps: “The most common thing any of my students (kids and adults) want from their yoga practice is more presence, more acceptance and letting go of any mental, emotional and/or spiritual blocks that hold them back in any way. I encourage my students to continue their practice off the mat. Even through a simple, even random act of kindness, we all make the world a better place. The message I'd like to send to inspire more people to be local heroes is this: Do what you love, love what you do, and share what you know wherever you go!”
For more information, visit the Yoga Tropics website, http://www.yogatropics.com