It can be hard to find a moment to just take a breath — especially now in the midst of all the stressors associated with living through a pandemic. But Katie Stoeckeler says that finding your breath is not just the most crucial thing to do, it’s our superpower.
Stoeckeler teaches yoga, meditation and mindfulness to people of all ages — as young as two years old — at a studio she launched last August, Peace in Piermont. A few months ago, she published her first children’s book entitled, “Let’s Sit Down and Meditate,” which is the first in a series of meditation-centered children’s books entitled “Give Your Brain A Bath.”
The book is uniquely empowering for those of all ages, intentionally inclusive to those of all abilities, religions and races, and educational for simply anyone. The overarching theme of the story is that meditating is a stellar power we have within us that it isn’t as hard as you think it is. Anyone can do it. She teaches: if you can breathe, you can meditate.
The author, mom, yogi and business owner has several other titles you could easily tack on. She’s a SUNY New Paltz alumna, for one. She’s experimented and excelled in multiple fields before founding Peace in Piermont, from working in special education, to gaining acclaim in the corporate world, to launching a jewelry company called Propose to Yourself (P2U) jewelry.
I talked to Stoeckeler (virtually, of course!) about Peace in Piermont, her life, her impact on others and how she found a passion she not only excels in, but finds fulfillment and purpose in, as well.
AS: How did you get into the world of meditation, yoga and mindfulness?
KS: I had a quarterlife crisis about four years ago. Up until that point, I was in school full-time, working three or four jobs, seven days a week, 60 to 80 hours a week for 10 years, from when I was 17 until I was 27. And then there was a culmination of life events and stressors that led to this realization that, “this is not sustainable. I cannot live my life this way.” From there I had to dig myself out and fully immerse myself in any sort of self-care I could get my hands on. It started with gratitude and the law of attraction mindset. Then it spiraled into yoga, and I became a lot more spiritual.
At that point I had accomplished a lot. I had everything on paper and all the material riches, but I was very spiritually poor and bankrupt. As a child and young adult, I had been through a lot of trauma, and especially after learning things to help me heal from that, I really wanted to share that with other kids in hopes of not just helping, but on top of that, just really preventing it all together as a big picture goal.
I used to teach special education. I taught emotionally disturbed kids, and [many] of them had multiple learning disabilities and a lot of trouble regulating their emotions. So, I became really eager in particular to share yoga and mindfulness with them because I just noticed [it’s] profound impact on my own life — that’s kind of how it began. Then, I started flirting with the idea of teaching, and started training just to learn more. That spiraled into teaching from my home, and the classes began to fill up, [so] I finally opened my brick and mortar space last August in Piermont.
What was your first experience with yoga like?
I want to be honest with you, I struggled with yoga for a while. I would go to classes with friends whenever they would ask me to, but I never really enjoyed it because my mind just goes a million miles an hour and it’s always been very hard for me to sit with my thoughts and sit still for long. It was also hard because of how I looked at different kinds of classes. I thought if I wasn’t dripping sweat, it didn’t count as working out and I was wasting my time. But as I started going through my difficult time [in life], I noticed that there was a lot of value and growth in sitting with those challenging emotions. If you work through those moments, there’s a lot of beauty that comes from it. I became very aware of needing to become more self-aware and needing to understand what I was feeding my mind. I started noticing I would feel so good afterwards which grew the curiosity of “How do I take this off the mat?”
How long have you envisioned yourself writing this children’s book?
Probably since I started my yoga, mindfulness and meditation journey. The book was constantly ruminating in my mind for about a year before I put it to paper. My big picture goal with my book series is to introduce people to these ideas in a very simplified way that makes it accessible to anyone. I think meditation has a reputation for being this existential experience. People think if you don’t see colors, know how to levitate or can’t do it for an hour a day, then you really aren’t meditating. We so often overcomplicate things when it’s really just sitting, breathing, being with your thoughts and trusting that your breath is cleansing your brain.
How did you decide on the title “Give Your Brain A Bath” for your book series?
I did a silent meditation retreat a year and a half ago and I was having a very difficult time because I had never meditated before I signed up. So I went from no meditation to 10 to 14 hours a day, and it was a struggle for me to sit still for that long. Something that really helped me was [that] I would literally imagine my brain just being rinsed out. Everything that was causing me anxiety, panic and stress being wrenched out of my mind. That’s how “Give Your Brain a Bath” was born.
Why did you decide to focus so strongly on teaching these skills to children?
Children are so impressionable. Especially in today’s world, there’s so much exposure to technology and media. There’s also not enough time in a school day for most teachers to teach self-regulatory skills, or how kids should regulate their emotions. Kids are not at all taught to sit still and learn how to process their thoughts and work through challenging moments. As adults, we were never taught that either. I think starting with kids and really carving out meaningful time to teach them at a young age would build the ripple effect that changes the world.
How have children taken to learning to meditate and do yoga so far?
I teach kids as young as two years old. In the beginning, most kids — not all kids, some of them get it right away — but most kids just need to see it for a while [first]. So sometimes it takes a child a month or two, or even three, to come to classes and observe what the other kids are doing. But then there’s this magical thing that starts to happen. There’s really no timeframe, but it’s happened with every single person that consistently comes to the studio. Eventually something clicks.
How does teaching yoga for children differ from teaching it to adults?
I teach kids yoga the same way [I would] adults. Don’t get me wrong, we do animal poses and play games and make it fun, but I think it’s really important for them to understand the traditional way. So I teach them the Sanskrit words and we do sun salutations. We do it really very similarly structured to my adult classes, and that’s important too because I think as a teacher, the most valuable thing that I want to instill in my students and parents is having expectations. That’s such a big part of it all. If you tell yourself that this is too hard for them, what are you instilling in them? They’re going to tell themselves they can’t do it, and of course then they’ll never rise to the occasion. I really learned that as a special education teacher. Even with the kids who have so many challenges, if you teach them the mindset of believing in themselves, knowing they can do anything and trying their best, you’re always blown away by what they produce.
Many people have never heard of two-year-olds doing yoga. Could you take us into the world of baby yoga and tell us more about what it’s like?
It’s very wonderful for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, yoga can do so many great things for babies. It’s really great for digestion and relieving gas. It also helps with fine and gross motor movements, and stretching them. But babies are these natural yogi’s anyway. They can naturally do so many different poses. What’s equally important in the class is for the parents to connect and to regain that sense of self that a lot of them lose after getting pregnant and having the baby. Baby yoga is about building and fostering that community for them, and holding space for them to show up however they are that day without judgment. I think it’s honestly the most beautiful thing that comes of it.
A crucial mission in every aspect of what you do seems to be accessibility. What are some of the things you’re doing to make sure that both your classes and your message are accessible to everyone?
Something I’m working on is a fellowship program or a sliding scale for kids in the community who maybe can’t afford the camp. My goal is to be in a position to offer access to anyone interested in it. Something really beautiful that’s come from the whole [COVID-19 pandemic] is that it’s given me the nudge to get classes online, because that is definitely part of the big picture goal: having that space for people. I just started doing YouTube classes, which is a very uncomfortable journey, but very important to have out there to give different options to people. So many people have reached out and found it so helpful, especially now.
Finally, can you share what your experience doing undergraduate at New Paltz was like?
I love New Paltz because it’s such a great energy and it’s always struck me as very inclusive and diverse, which is very important to me. I met my best friends for life there and I’m still close with most of them. Sara [Martin], the illustrator of the book, would probably be my closest.
There’s such wonderful people and teachers. I transferred into New Paltz, and it was truly the best decision. I felt grounded for the first time in my life [there], which is a huge thing for me. It felt like the first breath of fresh air I’d had in a very long time. I still come to New Paltz a lot for inspiration. I try to come at least once a month, but there are times — like when I was getting ready to publish my book — that I came three times that month because I feel so at ease and inspired when I’m there. And I love walking around and just being outside there, it’s so beautiful and peaceful.
Peace in Piermont is currently closed due to COVID-19 safety precautions, but almost all of their classes will still take place online. This includes free 30-minute meditation classes live every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (learn more here and scroll down to see the schedule). Consider trying or continuing your meditation practice with Stoeckeler next Wednesday!
To help support Peace in Piermont amidst the difficulties of staying afloat as a small business during this pandemic, consider purchasing a gratitude package.