"Sean O'Shea Foundation"
Sean O’Shea Foundation Introduces Yoga to At-Risk Youth

"Sean O'Shea Foundation"Classical Indian music featuring mellow, droning sitar sets a peaceful harmony for eight high school students seated on yoga mats in a cross-legged, meditative position, pressing their palms together at heart level.

This is the last yoga class of the semester for the students of Sunset High, an alternative education school, which is part of the San Dieguito School District. Several students come from low-income families and face more than just economic hardships.

But the yoga program here at the school is transforming teenage angst into positive energy.

Without the December, 2006 death of a beloved 32-year-old, well-known Ashtanga yoga teacher and Encinitas resident—Sean O’Shea—, the students at Sunset High may have never been introduced to yoga, and consequentially, may have never found a more peaceful path.

Just as these Sunset High yogis are redirecting anxiety into positivity, Gloria O’Shea has overcome a huge loss, keeping her son Sean’s legacy alive through the Sean O’Shea Foundation, which introduces and teaches yoga and nutrition to at-risk students.

In the 2008 movie, Seven Pounds, actor Will Smith’s character crashes his car because of text messaging while driving. His crash kills seven people. The movie is about Smith’s quest for redemption. One philosophical lesson learned from the movie is that tragedy, though it often seems random, can sometimes lead to a greater cause.

O’Shea was also killed in a car accident. But he wasn’t doing anything absent-minded while he was driving; it was a bizarre and statistically-improbable event that makes some people wonder if a higher power didn’t have a hand in taking him from this Earthly plain for the greater good of humanity.

His namesake non-profit Foundation, in just over two years, has already reached approximately 800 low-income students in over 25 schools across the county, most of them, so called “Title One Schools”, which are provided with extra funding from the federal government.

Josh Phillips, a 17-year old senior at Sunset is one student who has benefited from the program and O’Shea’s legacy.

“Now when I’m stressed out at school, I just do a downward dog or some other pose and breathe. The stress goes away so quickly,” he says.

Phillips realized the health benefits—both physically and emotionally—of yoga before taking his first class.

“The people who I saw coming in and out of yoga class always seemed so chill.

That really appealed to me,” he says, adding, “Plus, you’re only as healthy as your spine is flexible.”

Sunset High counselor Terry Hendlin, an Ashtanga Yoga practitioner herself, says some students at the school have dealt with major drug and alcohol issues in the past but are now sober; some students live on their own by the age of sixteen.

Hendlin is ecstatic that Sunset is the beneficiary of O’Shea’s legacy of teaching yoga to at-risk youth. O’Shea spent time teaching at an Oceanside Title One school before his death, teaching yoga to “gang-bangers” as young as middle-school age.

“Although Sean’s passing caused many tears, he wouldn’t have been able to reach all these kids by himself,” says Hendlin. “I had wanted to have a yoga program at Sunset for quite some time and thanks to the Foundation, this has been an awesome experience.”

Katie Beroukhim, a yoga teacher of 10 years, leads classes at various studios including Willows Yoga in downtown Encinitas. She met Gloria O’Shea previous to Sean’s accident and was the first instructor for the Foundation, teaching at the pilot program at High Tech High in San Marcos. This is her first stint teaching yoga at Sunset.

“It’s just amazing how beneficial yoga has been for these kids,” says Beroukhim. “It’s helped them enormously with stress relief. There have been times when students share that they’ve had a stressful day and are under a lot of pressure. Yoga has helped them to get quiet on the inside and discover the strength of silence.”

But now that the last yoga class of the seven-week series at Sunset has concluded, do some of these students plan on continuing their yoga practice?

One option for them is to go almost directly west one mile as the crow flies, at the end of I Street. The Pacific Crest Yoga Club, every Saturday at 9:00 a.m., hosts a donation-based yoga class, all proceeds benefiting the Sean O’Shea Foundation.

Rich McGowan, a teacher at the Ashtanga Yoga Center and a resident at Pacific Crest Apartments, leads the class, which is open to the public and is conducted with a 180-degree ocean-view on a communal pool-deck. He says that in the past year, this unofficial club, which sometimes takes dolphin-viewing breaks during class, has raised $1500.

“We are a small group and the donations are often as little as a few bucks, but every dollar counts if it means the difference between introducing yoga to an at-risk kid,” says McGowan, who teaches at Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center.

Miller was Sean O’Shea’s yoga mentor, certifying him to teach Ashtanga seven years ago in Tulum, Mexico.

“If there is a higher purpose to Sean’s passing, I would say it’s the Foundation,” says Miller, whose yoga studio, through fundraisers, has donated several thousand dollars to the Foundation.

“Sean’s presence is alive and well as long as the Foundation endures and prospers,” adds Miller.

According to Gloria O’Shea, the Foundation hopes to reach 2,000 children by next year. Through fundraisers and donations, the Foundation has been operating over the last two years on a budget of approximately $50,000 per year.

With the exception of a handful of teachers who are paid, the Foundation is run by volunteers. Each seven-week series costs around $800 to run. Title One schools do not pay for the seven-week series; it is all paid for through the Foundation.

But Gloria O’Shea realizes that it’s important for kids to continue their yoga practice after the series ends. Free community classes for kids and parents are arranged through the Foundation at community recreation centers in Oceanside and other lower-income areas.

“For these kids, yoga has been a safe haven,” she says, quietly whispering as another Foundation class is in session, this one at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Oceanside.

“They can be themselves without the harassment of being picked on. They accept everybody as equals in the class and feel like they have each other’s backs.”

Asked if she ever feels her son’s spirit, O’Shea replies, “Big time! After Sean passed away, everyone said I have to continue his legacy. I know he’d be very happy that we’re continuing what he believed in.”

The Sean O’Shea Foundation has recently launched the project “Mats for Teens.” A $10 contribution to the Foundation will buy a yoga mat for an at-risk teen. For more information on the Foundation, visit www.SeanOSheaFoundation.org.

"Sean O'Shea Foundation"


Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.