I recently had the experience of teaching yoga to the youth of inner city Boston. Like most wonderful things in life, it happened through an unexplainable and nonsensical chain of events… that all began in an asana class. Meeting Anthe, the woman who had recently spearheaded a non profit organization called “the greater silence corporation” was fortuitous indeed. Her mission was to bring yoga into the public schools at no cost to the school, and she had attained a little grant money to get it started. Anthe wanted students to feel a connection with a greater silence that exists just beyond the state of focus, just beyond the distractions of every day. I was excited by this opportunity to bring yoga to the youth and to grow as an instructor. Within two weeks of meeting Anthe, I was poised to teach at a camp called “Summer Spot,” a youth program for middle school kids of Dorchester, MA, for six weeks out of the summer.
I was terrified.
Unfortunately, I remember middle school. It was horrible. I had braces and really awkwardly long limbs. I had crushes on boys that were grossed out by the sight of me, and a group of girlfriends that were not really my friends (frenemies?). I remember school dances spent crying in the bathroom. I remember the different cliques I would sit with at lunch. I remember questioning everything about myself. That was also almost twenty years ago, and I am far from current on what middle school is like in 2010. I was sure that the kids would see me as kind of a geek, just like they did in those days. I feared that horrible feeling of rejection and disillusionment. But I came up with a curriculum and rallied, thinking that if all else failed I could impress them by standing on my head.
When I walked into the school on that first Monday to teach, I was quite nervous. The coordinators decided to split the classes up into boys’ yoga on Monday and girls’ yoga on Wednesday. The rationale behind it was that the kids would feel a little more comfortable trying something new with body movement without the distractions of having members of the opposite sex in the room. The more I thought about it, the more I liked this method. Middle school is awkward enough without trying to stick your rear end in the air in downward dog with your crush a few mats away. With this in mind, I took the approach of working both with postures and philosophical discussion in each class. For the most part, I focused on one of the yamas or niyamas of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. We talked about a different aspect each week: Satya (truth), Dhyana (focus), Santosha (contentment), Ahimsa (non violence), Tadasana (mountain pose) and Vinyasa (flowing with breath).Â I was prepared with a curriculum to introduce the students to basic postures and philosophical principles of the practice. But my heart was pounding and my palms were sweating, just like my first day of sixth grade.
I met the boys first. These guys had so much energy and so many things to say and ask. I tried to get them to stand still on their mat, which was nearly impossible. There were staff members from the camp that were in the room practicing as well, so that was quite helpful in keeping the kids focused. It was in that first class with the boys that I adopted the cue “mouths closed, minds open.”Â It was something that just came to me and I am sure it has been used before. It was a great mantra to employ with the energetic boys, even when they couldn’t heed the message. We did some basic asanas like warriors and prasaritas, learned sun salutations, and practiced crane pose. One of the boys just sat on his mat the entire time, unfazed and unmoving. Some stared at me blankly and quizzically but made efforts to do the postures properly. Others followed along with every pose, often with immediate commentary or questioning: “Shanti, am I doing it right?”; “Shanti, are my knees supposed to hurt?” After we did some standing postures, one of the guys in the back remarked, “I feel mad loose!”
Through the majority of the class I had to keep things moving along fairly quickly in order to keep the boys from distracting each other and themselves. But, there was one moment where we might have achieved Anthe’s notion of the greater silence in class. We stood in tadasana, breathing in to sweep arms out and up overhead, and breathing out to take hands in prayer at heart center. I asked them to do this three times only, focusing on the breath and nothing more. It was a fleeting moment, but I did hear nothing but breath and sweeping arms for three full cycles. To feel an entire room grow still and focused, that only moments before was filled with chatter and commotion, was truly awesome. (To check out a video of the boys first class, go to http://www.thegreatersilence.com/ and click on the second clip, posted on 7/15/10.)
On Wednesday I walked in with a little more confidence after experiencing the energy of the boys on Monday. But to my surprise, the girls were total opposites. They looked at me as though I had two heads. With the girls I felt like I was pulling teeth in order to get them to take a breath. Some of the girls were from Somalia and had a strict Islamic dress code they had to employ at all times, so they were practicing asana with long flowing skirts and head scarves. This hindered their practice in a way because it seemed to always distract them, but it was sweet to watch how they worked with it, constantly adjusting the skirts in warriors and in supine asanas. I found that the girls were more defeatist than the boys were, saying things like “I can’t do that!” before they even tried, and would rather fall into a puddle on the floor than hold a posture for more than a couple of breaths. But unlike the boys, they kept silent during savasana (resting pose) and were able to sit together silently as a class for a few moments at the end. When they left they were all thankful and smiling, and after the first week the entire Summer Spot group voted yoga their favorite class!
It was an invigorating and thrilling start, and I worked hard to ride that wave for the rest of the summer. There were many days where we had great discussions about how to treat others with compassion and how to be kind to oneself. There were some days when my voice virtually was not heard. I found that when there were no other staff members present I had a harder time keeping the kids focused. For the girls this meant lolling around on their mats listlessly while sighing heavily. For the boys it meant switching mats, leaving the room, talking constantly, blowing up balloons, and running down the hallways. I actually heard myself say at one point, “This isn’t the circus, it’s yoga class.” So much for keeping my composure. It was very difficult to discipline this group and still lead a class… I can’t imagine how schoolteachers do it.
I had the experience after teaching a particularly tough week where I had to totally let go of the experience because it was so unsuccessful. I was disheartened by the lack of interest and felt that I must be uninteresting as a person. It was middle school all over again. But the following week there were new students who came and really enjoyed it. I had one boy ask me if he could come to the girls’ session too, he liked it so much. There were two boys who stuck out to me as yogis: one was a very tall basketball player who embraced it because the pros did it, the other a spunky little fireball who liked to stand on his hands and do any pose called “Warrior.” Whatever their reasons, they connected to the practice, and I gave each of them a yoga mat at the end of the summer. Perhaps it will sit in the corner of their bedroom for years, but maybe it will get some use and will inspire them to continue practicing.
The last day the group presented me with a big card with the words “YOGA IS:” at the top. The kids wrote many adjectives with which they would describe yoga. Among them were the words magnificent, blah, awesome, helpful, bubbly, calming, exciting, fun, relaxing, cool, and special. But the word that stood out to me the most was “dope.” Yoga is dope! Who knew? It was a sign to me that on some level, I had reached them.
When I developed the curriculum I had a great vision of yoga changing the lives of these kids, bringing them peace in tough moments, bringing them a profound sense of calm, bringing them to realizations on how to treat themselves and those around them, how to approach life in this world. But in retrospect I should have realized that it may never come anywhere near that. That is what yoga has done for me, in my life, over many years of practice. For these kids, this six week course over the summer served simply as a mere introduction to the basic principles of what yoga is. They were in a place where they could feel safe to try something new and to ask questions about a practice that they were rarely exposed to in their everyday lives. Many of them took only one class. One of them tried to steal a mat. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “I hate yoga!” in that six week period. But kids are kids. You never know what they are going to do with what you give them. They are young, their lives can go anywhere. Perhaps the next time they get the chance to try yoga, they will approach it with enthusiasm. Or perhaps they will say that the only yoga teacher they ever had was a total geek. I guess I will never know.
By Shanti Caiazzo