Teen Teaching

I’ve been writing in my journal about teaching yoga in county drug court, trying to find a way to convey an experience close to my heart.  The task intimidates me, and yet the program was recently cut, and I feel a need to record what I can on paper.  And so I find myself in the wake of this departing boat, touching into memories, emotions, and effects.

This blog is titled “Can we bring ourselves to work,” and yet in this instance, I have to say work brought forth my self.  I sought this position out because I wanted to share the grounding that yoga provides with these kids taking drugs and confronting the justice system.  I wanted to give them a sense that they have wisdom within themselves and that they can best access it when they unwind tension, relax, and listen within.  I knew many would be angry, or simply not receptive to my mission, but I sure wanted to try.  Only now do I realize how applicable the saying “we teach what we most need to know” was for me, because teaching these kids helped me learn to convey yoga from a deeper sense of bodily awareness as well as from internal guidance.

When we first started our classes, we met in a musty old probation building, in a windowless room where we had to move about 16 tables and numerous chairs to create a practice space.  I was very nervous, and I taught a rather rigid class, walking students through sun salutations over and over to calm both myself and them.  Some criticized or resisted, some listlessly did what they were told.  The mood was mostly resigned, and kids were quick to leave when class ended.

Meeting weekly and engaging in yoga, we began to connect with each other and create a practice.  I observed some that some were still going through the motions, a distracted look on their faces, but some began to notice sensations and satisfaction in the poses so that their eyes softened and their minds and bodies quieted, perhaps deepening in connection.  Some were angry and disruptive, asking why they had to do yoga and saying it was too hard;  I had to tell them to leave and try again in the next class.  Some, before and after class, talked to me.  One complained there wasn’t enough variety.  Others told me about their journey into drug court and their reaction to being there.  Some told me that yoga relaxed them, made them feel less angry.

Over time, with support from the magistrate, parole officers, and caseworkers, I learned how to handle behavior issues.  But more importantly, I learned from the blunt feedback and questions kids asked.  Can we do some new poses?  Can we make up poses?  Can we see who can stand the longest in tree pose?  Can we try handstands?   And, once I introduced partner yoga, can we get a partner?  I learned to loosen up, to teach what I felt.  Then, most importantly of all, I felt again the raw exposure to life and death an adolescent feels (particularly around confronting family issues, experiencing anger and drugs, sometimes the death of friends), and I witnessed naked courage.  When I met the mother of a kid hooked on meth and heard of the imprisonment of the family men, I was awed at the girl’s strength to pull up and choose her own health.  To finish school and begin taking classes at the community college.  When my favorite student killed himself, I was stunned by realization of how open his heart was and how much pain he’d been in.

Ultimately, I was opened up. I learned to trust myself, and I learned to respond more fearlessly to people of varied temperament, social adjustment, and maturity.  Less threatened by criticism or resistance, I felt a deep patience for all the kids, and yet I stopped behavior that disrupted class.   I learned to be real when I couldn’t do a particular pose or made a mistake.    In the mix of emotions and conflicts, I was pulled into community as I never had before.

Within a few years we moved into a peaceful yoga studio with a large window, calming yellow and brick walls and soft multi-colored tapestries.  Students who had been in class a few months or more did not want to be disrupted, and they let the new kids know by example or words.  I had some demonstrate poses, or sometimes they would tutor each other unasked.  And in the more peaceful environment, with the benefit of years past and supportive staff, we developed a strong practice.  In the afternoon light, we practiced mindfully, delighting in the sensations and resting deeply at the end of practice.

Through the teachings of the teens and my own extraordinary yoga teacher during these years, I learned to convey openness, gentleness, playfulness, and peace. I truly did bring myself to work, and I brought the teachings of the students into that self.  I became more whole, and I hope they did too.

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