BY SHALEEN DESTEFANO
For culture lovers, wellness seekers and yoga geeks, Tonia Crosby has had one hell of a journey and thus, an amazing story to tell. Living with cancer is not an obstacle for her, but rather, has led her on a path to joy and helping others.
You are a self proclaimed wanderer with a stability fetish, a feminist yogi, a Buddhist ninja, a socially conscious nerd, a thriving survivor and a woman who loves to be in the wild. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from how you got to where you are now?
Oh man, I feel like I have lived many lives in this one lifetime – thus all those identity descriptors I use. I am a lot of paradoxes. We often have these limiting beliefs that tell us we can’t be both, and my lot in life has taught me that is just not the truth. I think that is also why people find my journey inspirational, because I live outside the box, unapologetically.
I wasn’t sure how to answer this question except to say where those identities came from along this crazy ride I’m on.
Wanderer with a stability fetish: I have traveled a lot over my adult life, all over the world; exploration is a deeply rooted part of my character. I get this ache in my heart to go, and I am so fortunate to have had the resources to do just that. I imagine I have had the resources (time, energy, money) because I never got married or had kids and have long been a minimalist. But over the years I have also learned that stability and home are really important to my wellness; a comfortable place to rest, nourish and create. Both are so important, even if they feel at odds with one another at times.
Feminist Yogi: I am very much a feminist, having a degree in gender studies and having focused my master’s work on the intersection of gender, peace and justice. I don’t shake my fists so much anymore but I do believe in the constant work of systemic equality. Yet, I am also a yogi and believe that the internal space is where the most impact is made – butterfly effect. I end every adult yoga class I teach with a reminder that by coming to the mat we are making the world a better place, because we are indeed part of it. And yet, we have a lot of cultural and societal work to do. I am working with the tension between Feminist Tonia and Yogi Tonia, constantly.
Buddhist Ninja: I hesitantly call myself a Buddhist because it is the religion I have studied most, feel most intuitively connected to, and identify with the most in theory. But I am also most likely to thrive in a very active life; I can only sit in meditation so long and find that my moments of connection with the Buddha nature are most likely to come on my snowboard or on a trail run. I am also a fighter just by the very cards I have been dealt: from a difficult childhood, to sexual assault, to cancer. Over time I have learned the Ninja nature alongside the Buddha nature – only fight when you absolutely have to, but if you have to, employ your skills with as much calm as possible.
Socially Conscious Nerd: I am both socially conscious and nerdy to a fault sometimes. I try hard to live an aware life, from reducing plastic, to not buying anything that may have contributed to slavery, to a nutritious diet, and all the things in between. Still, I find I am always learning ways to be better. I am fascinated by society and the human condition, so much so that I will find myself researching a topic for days having forgotten to shower, or eat more than nuts and apples. My dog has helped me balance out the die hard academic though – he makes sure we get into the woods.
Thriving Survivor: This one can be hard for folks to grasp, which is maybe why it is so important. I live with cancer. In fact, I live a more highly functioning and fulfilling life than most people I know, regardless of some misbehaving cells in my body. My opinion, as a woman who has been dealing with cancer both in and out of western medicine for seven plus years, is that we have cancer all wrong. These draconian methods we use to treat cancer are misguided at best. I keep getting the message that I will die from doctors, but the closest I have ever been to death was chemo. And when curious doctors ask me about why I continue to beat the odds without prescribed treatment, my answer is always the same – it is all about how I live my life. Don’t get me wrong, Western Medicine has helped me, but there has to be quality of life. Taking vitality away from me in an effort to kill a cellular disease, is just silly. But like I said, that’s hard for folks to understand because there is so much fear around it. I stopped with the fear and put my energy in joy some time ago.
Woman in the Wild: Nature is my bag. I don’t even know how to describe how important it is to me to be in the wilderness. I hike as many as 40 miles a week and can feel the desert calling me sometimes. It is the most important part of my existence, hands down. And although I think there is a definite shift happening, the wild has historically been reserved for men. I can’t tell you how many times I have surprised someone by telling them I’ve been on a solo backpacking trip or out-of-bounds snowboarding or paddling my dog and I to the far side of a lake to camp. We don’t expect women to do that, especially not alone. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You have a passion for integrating yoga and mindfulness curriculum into the educational environment. From this passion, you started Bhavana Kids. Can you tell us how it came to be, and how someone can get involved?
bhavanaKIDS is built on a curriculum concept first and foremost; it is the vision that yoga and mindfulness should be a course of study in young people’s lives just like any other subject or extra curricular they learn growing up. It’s not hard to see that grown folks need tools for living and thriving, just look around. That idea has been in my consciousness for a long time. The first time I remember really identifying it was when I was living and studying in India, where I was practicing constantly. The framework of the curriculum began to solidify when I was working in schools in and around the Cole neighborhood of Denver, where I owned a small community minded yoga studio. As with anything, the bKIDS Curriculum took shape as I taught alongside doing research. And the more time I spent with young people, the more clear it became that this was my purpose. In fact, when I was really sick in 2016-17 it was the only work I did, because I wouldn’t give it up. Every Thursday, I showed up and taught five classes of 7th graders, no matter how bad I felt. And then I got a new lease on life, a kind of amazing healing, and the timing was right. So, I launched bKIDS as a socially conscious business, in an effort to get it in as many schools as possible. I spent last summer – and all my resources – training Educators and marketing the program. We just launched in the 2017/2018 school year and it blows my mind how successful it has been. I am preparing now to certify a new cohort of Educators and am consulting for placements in the summer and fall.
We are currently taking applications for Educators. There is a competitive process taking shape for our next cohort and I am so glad for that. Because as beautiful as this work is, it is really hard. And I learned quickly this last semester that our Educators have to have grit, loyalty and excellent communication skills, beyond a yoga practice. There is also a lot of opportunity for career advancement so I am looking for folks who are motivated by their own success. Interested yoga professionals OR educators with a yoga practice can apply to bhavanakids.com/2018-bkids-educator-certification.
We are booking consultations for summer and fall placements now through May. If folks are interested in learning how to get a bKIDS Educator in their school or youth program that is the first step. We serve K-12 but are committed to placing Educators in the locations where they can be successful. So, if someone is interested, it is best to book that consultation sooner than later. My feeling is we will have more potential placements than Educators to meet the need this year. Folks can get in touch to book a consultation at bhavanakids.com/contact.
We are also launching a sponsorship program to help schools with funding issues get bKIDS classes for the young people they serve. Essentially, businesses or private citizens will be able to sponsor a school for a bKIDS session length placement, or better, through a donation to the school. The best way to stay informed about that and other happenings is to sign up for the newsletter on the front page of the website: bhavanakids.com/bkids-school-sponsorship.
This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but how is mindfulness, meditation and yoga so beneficial for children?
Yeah, the research is abundant: yoga and mindfulness supports young people in myriad ways. We live in a crazy world – bright lights and loud noises, both figuratively and literally, all the time. From standardized tests to social media, there is a lot of pressure on young people, constantly. Yet, there is little in the current educational environment to help young people deal with all of that. Studies are showing that the advent of smart phones alone coincides with a spike in depression and anxiety. Kids need tools. Yoga and mindfulness, when taught with the intention of preparing young people to thrive, can most certainly fill that void. I can’t imagine how much better off I would have been as a young person if I had the tools I have now – especially when we are talking about trauma.
We use a method called cognitive embodiment at bKIDS. It teaches young people about social, emotional and behavioral (SEL) concepts through both learning style and body awareness. Essentially, we are introducing the topics that humans struggle with (anger, feeling overwhelmed, stress), or concepts that help humans thrive (balance, compassion, intuition) and then we work through a process of understanding and internalizing in the mind-body connection. Students in our classrooms learn how a SEL concept applies to their lives, their body based experience and their connection to others. Then we teach practices for healthy coping and expanding – breathing, moving, meditation and mindfulness exercises. It’s incredibly beneficial at any age.
Do you have any favorite moments with these children that are lucky enough to be a part of Bhavana Kids?
I have all kinds of favorite moments with bKIDS. I am always saying that it is the kids who save me and not the other way around. There is one story that always sticks out in my mind though…
In 2016 I started out the school year with a severely limited right arm because of breast cancer. I was terrified because I couldn’t reach both hands over head, I had to do down dog with one arm and had to significantly modify every other pose in the book, if I could even do it. So, I had no idea how I was going to teach all the fun arm balances and other challenging poses that middle schoolers love to learn. I spent the first four classes that day struggling to explain that I had cancer and because of that I would pull my right arm out of postures when I demonstrated, but that they should leave their right arms in. It took so much courage to be so vulnerable in front of them and I was fumbling all over the place. Then the last class of the day came and in walks a young lady with an amputated right arm and down she sat on the mat next to mine. It gave me so much strength. And at the end of that class she came to me and said, “So, Ms. T., I should just do the poses like you do, then?” And I of course started to cry and gave her a left handed high five and thanked God a gazillion times on my drive home for giving that to me – a reason to learn all the poses with just one arm, so I could teach them to that fearless young woman. I believe I am where I am today in large part because of her. I think we all learned a lot about resiliency that year.
You seem to be a creature of change and someone who is always on the hunt for a new passion project. What does the future hold for you?
I have seen and manifested so much change in my life. If I believe anything about humans, it is that we are more adaptive than we think. But to be quite honest, I think that need for change is being fed by my podcast now, and I feel very settled in my life. bKIDS is my work for the foreseeable future, no question. And I hope to take it to other cities soon; so I suppose that is tumultuous enough.
I am also in love with my life in Colorado because it supports all those identities above. And I am also much less likely at this age and level of experience to be constantly seeking. Cancer has taught me presence while bKIDS and Illness Threatening Life have taught me that there is so much work to be done right here and now. And by work, I mean all the things that make life worth living.