By: Lynda McCullough
When I became a yoga teacher 13 years ago, I was keenly interested in introducing yoga into hospitals and mental health centers. I began my own practice right after my father died, and experienced such grounding within my grief that I longed to share the benefits of yoga with people who’d experienced illness or trauma. I taught in hospitals, but it was five years later, in county drug court, that I found my true niche working with teens.
Our class met in the county probation conference in an old building in Loveland, Colorado. Each session, we had to push chairs and tables aside and roll out our mats, then put everything back when we finished. I was nervous and rigid when I began, sticking closely to a routine, while I faced an intimidating group of mostly young men. Slowly, I got to know the kids and how to connect with them. I maneuvered through criticism, angry outbursts, and surly snarls, while often learning from valid feedback to become more creative and responsive in class. These kids were going through withdrawal and detox, and many were angry at parents and social workers or the world at large, and yet we soon created a calmer yoga culture in our own class.
In time, the kids began to yoga and the class experience itself. I became increasingly playful in teaching, sometimes adding in some partner yoga, other times responding to the mood of the class or requests to make up poses. Several teens expressed satisfaction and enjoyment with the calming effects of the yoga, saying they learned enough about grounding and breathing that yoga really helped them relax when in stressful situations at home or school. Some shared their stories and their hopes for college and work; a few said the combination of yoga, arts exploration, family and individual counseling had helped them turn their lives around.
About a year into the program, I asked a local yoga teacher if we could use her studio for an hour each week, and she consented. We moved into a studio with warm yellow walls (one brick) and a large window. On the first day of class in the studio one young man went up to a mat and sat on a blanket cross-legged, as though ready for meditation. Moving our class into this beautiful space really seemed to affect the kids and I, adding a more “sanctified,” mindful quality to our experience and practice, fostering a mood in which we could go inside, unwind, connect with our higher selves and each other.
When a new kid would come in, often angry or scared, reeling from trauma, and ready to challenge me and dismiss yoga, the culture we’d created began to work a magic upon him. Other kids would urge him to give it a chance, tell him they liked it and that it helped them. Sometimes the sight of the others settling onto their mats, ready to practice, was enough to affect a new person’s mirror neurons so he settled quickly.
In the course of a class period, and over the five years this program ran, I saw individual teens change in demeanor and in the way they interacted with the world. A scowling, jumpy, distracted, sometimes belligerent kid became softer and more relaxed, embracing the practice and a new way of being. The whole experience with case workers, probation officers, yoga, and arts instruction gave them a new sense of themselves and of life’s possibilities. Many in my class came to relish the experience, telling me they felt much more peaceful and at ease, glad to have a peaceful hour in which to settle once a week.
The funding for the yoga and arts program eventually was cut, but several years later I ran into a young woman who had been on meth before being sent to drug court. She was with her boyfriend and baby, and she gave the baby to him and came over to talk with me. She told me that drug court was a turning point for her and that yoga played a strong part in her ability to change her life. She said she is happy now, working on a bachelor’s in psychology so she can one day work in a drug court herself. Such is the potential of yoga and community, the milieu of a team of practitioners and peers. I have had other rewarding teaching experiences, but none quite as lovely, quite as transformative for myself and for the students, in tandem. Like the young woman I met in the coffee shop, I was given the tools and the community in which to change, and I feel blessed.