‘Sometimes you just have to breathe’

At the U.N., teen shares how yoga saved his life

On June 21, Osman Gomez, 16, a rising senior at Freeport High School, participated in the United Nations’ Yoga for Peace event.
On June 21, Osman Gomez, 16, a rising senior at Freeport High School, participated in the United Nations’ Yoga for Peace event.
Courtesy Osman Gomez

Osman Gomez stood before world leaders during the United Nations’ Yoga for Peace event on June 21. Nervously, he spoke into the microphone. A rising senior at Freeport High School, Gomez, 16, detailed for members of the U.N. how yoga, breathing and meditation saved his life.

Four years ago, he said, he never thought that his journey through meditation and deep breathing would put him in front of world leaders and yoga masters interested in hearing his story.

“I’m just a kid from Freeport,” Gomez said.

The son of Colombian immigrants, Gomez was born in Palisades, N.J., but has lived in Freeport since he started grammar school. He is active in Freeport High’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps and is a member of the drill team. Outside of school, he is in the Nassau County Explorers, an offshoot of the Boy Scouts. Stepping into his senior year, he is ready to graduate high school and head to college, he said. He is considering attending the New York Institute of Technology to study graphic design. By Gomez’s standards, life is good.

He admitted, however, that his outlook on life was not always so positive. As an eighth-grader at J.W. Dodd Middle School, he suddenly felt disconnected, aloof. He started failing classes, and he just wanted to lock himself in his room. At night, he said, he would cry for no apparent reason.

“I was alarmed,” Gomez said. “I didn’t know what was happening to me. I had no reason to feel so sad, but I just felt that way.”

His thoughts turned to suicide. That scared him. Anxious and confused, he confided in his mother.

“I didn’t know how to get help, so I went to my parents,” Gomez said.

In tears, he spoke to his mom at length about his feelings. She relayed his worries to school administrators.

The Freeport School District extended support, and Gomez started working with a psychologist, but also got involved with Dodd’s Youth Empowerment Seminar Program, YES, through which he was introduced to stress-reducing breathing techniques and social-emotional learning strategies.

“I learned many breathing techniques to help with my anxiety and depression,” Gomez said. “One of them was the victory breath, and it’s where I inhale and exhale, making rhythmic ocean sounds, and it really calms all of my emotions.”

The YES program provides students with group and one-on-one sessions where students can learn how to become college and career ready, while exploring meditation and yoga along with other stress-reducing techniques. The program has been at Dodd for several years, and its success prompted the Freeport district to expand it to other schools.

“They, my teachers in the YES program, really showed me a new way of life,” Gomez said.

Last January, Gomez was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, a condition that affects the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement. His diagnosis was difficult for him to accept, but he said yoga and his regular breathing techniques help him cope with his illness. Before the diagnosis, Gomez had planned to join the military and eventually become a law enforcement officer. Because of SMA, however, he cannot.

Spending a day at the U.N. was surreal for Gomez. He recalled sitting in front of the panel of yoga leaders from different parts of the globe waiting for his turn to speak. “Yoga, for me, has really made a better me,” Gomez said. “Sometimes you just have to breathe.”