What It’s Like to Teach Yoga at Juvenile Hall


“Wow, really? Isn’t that dangerous?”

That was a common reaction when I told people I was volunteer teaching yoga at juvenile hall. They’d look slightly taken aback with the unspoken message, “What’s a petite woman like you doing teaching a bunch of thugs?” Ultimately people were positive, saying, “Good for you”, but underlying their initial response were some preconceived ideas about what juvenile hall and the kids sent there are like.

Indeed, as I started teaching at SF Juvenile Hall through the Lemonade Program, I had my own preconceptions of what the experience would be like. I had no idea that what I was in for, nor did I expect that after my volunteer hours were up, I would continue teaching there every week for nearly a year and a half. The experience not only taught me a lot, touched my heart, and challenged my teaching, but it also shattered the misconceptions before I starting teaching there. Such as:

It’s not safe You are quite protected when you are teaching. There’s never less than two counselors in the room at all times. In addition, the gym and unit doors all lock from the outside. I’ve never had a kid threaten, try to intimidate, or physically lash out at me. In fact, the most violent thing I’ve seen the boys do is to razz each other and playfully push and punch at each other, not unlike what you’d see other teenage boys do.

The kids are thugs. On the contrary, they’re just, well, kids. Some are big guys, others quite small and many in that in-between stage of not being fully grown into their lanky bodies yet. They make fun of each other, whine about being tired, and sometimes ask you personal questions out of the blue. Other times they are really thoughtful and cooperative and you don’t always know which one you’re going to get. I’m fully aware that all of them did some bad things to end up in juvvie in the first place, but they aren’t that different than you’re average kid. Gang-related tattoos abound and that seems to be one of the major ways kids there have taken a wrong turn.

Preventing violence and verbal abuse will be the biggest behavior issues. These were virtually non-existent, whether it was the security that prevented it from happening or that fact that most kids aren’t really naturally violent and abusive. The huge challenge is actually keeping the kids from getting distracted and keeping them focused. Once I thought about it, the reason seemed obvious. I actually went into one of the tiny cells in one of the empty units just to get a sense of where the boys were coming from. And boy did I get it. You’d have trouble keeping anyone’s attention who spends a sizable portion of their day in this cramped locked cell.

The kids will want to do yoga because they’ll jump at the chance to get out of their cells. Doing yoga with us every week is always an optional activity, but despite the alternative of staying locked in their cell, many kids still opt-out. I realized how much yoga can be intimidating. Yoga – especially Forrest Yoga – can bring up emotions as well as physical trauma and it takes a lot of courage for anyone to handle that when it arises. I also learned that these kids struggle with a lot of depression and apathy. It’s not uncommon for kids to stay in juvenile time for months, sometimes a year, until the court makes a decision about what happens to them next. A lot of the time the options don’t seem great and in the meantime, they’re living in the day-to-day monotony of being incarcerated with a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen to them. A big challenge in teaching is creating a safe environment so the kids feel encouraged, but not forced to participate and supported and praised with the efforts they make, even if they don’t do every pose.

There won’t be the amount of injuries that you’ll find in an adult class. In most kids and teen yoga classes, you definitely make sure to keep kids safe in class, but generally kids don’t have injuries or get injured often. However, a lot of the kids at juvenile hall are injured. Some of them have major gunshot and knife wounds and a large proportion of them have experienced (often severe) physical trauma. So giving lots of beginning options and educating kids about working at a place where they aren’t experiencing pain is particularly important. It’s also key to identify poses that are likely to be triggering. In the beginning, we avoided poses like abs or bridge where students were laying on their back where students were likely to feel more vulnerable. We often had students lined up against the wall so they more secure. Gradually as we built trust with the students, we slowly introduced these type of poses.

Staff will advocate for a dedicated yoga program. I just assumed that staff at juvenile hall would be just as passionate about yoga and see the benefits of a yoga program in the jail. The reality is that while some staff were very supportive from the get-go, many staff were indifferent or downright resistant to us teaching yoga to the kids. There’s definitely the feeling from some that the kids are there to be punished and therefore, they shouldn’t be getting something enjoyable like yoga as part of their punishment. And while I don’t agree with this view, I completely understand their feeling of the kids receiving serious consequences for often very serious crimes they’ve committed. Just like building trust and rapport with the kids is a process, it’s also been a process with the counselors and staff. Lots of them have really come to understand more about why we do the yoga in the way we do with the kids and how it’s important. It was amazing to see how many even become strong champions of the program. Sometimes we even had some of the counselors participate in the class itself.

If the kids aren’t really enthusiastic and receptive to the yoga, clearly I’m not doing a good job and wasting my time. You have to be happy with small successes. There were days where nothing seems to go right: the kids were all over the place, people acting out, complaining, etc. But then you would have that one moment. Maybe it was a kid getting excited about doing a pose he’d never been able to do before. Or the kid that grumbled about everything remarked how much better his neck felt after a pose. Those moments made it all worth it. After each class, we’d share what the win was and brainstorm how we could approach the challenges we had in a different way and what different approaches and poses we could try in our teaching.

The other big thing I’ve learned from the kids at juvvie: you never know what is going to sink in. We brought a stack of old Yoga Journal magazines for the kids to have in the units. One day out of the blue, one of the boys asked about doing a pose we’d never done before and described what it looked like. I realized the only way he would’ve know the pose would be if he saw it in one of the magazines. Similarly, one day we tried chanting w/ the kids with mixed success at best. Yet we noticed after some of the classes, the boys would start humming parts of it as they rolled up their mat.

You never know what impact you’re going to have. And that’s what makes the hard work worth it.

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