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.

You Must Evolve : Assisting Ana Forrest at the Yoga Journal Conference SF

“And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?””
–Talking Heads “Once In a Lifetime”

There was a moment during one of Ana’s class sessions where I looked out at the room of a hundred students and wondered how I got here. I’d been a student in these sessions many times and now, here I was assisting! When I first took a workshop from Ana, I was in awe of the assistants and impressed with how much attention they gave to students. I never imagined that I’d be one of them–clearly someone must have made a mistake, right? I mean, me? Assisting?

Despite those nagging doubts, I felt so lucky to be there as art of a six-person team of assistants (with a seventh, my teacher Colleen, joining us on Saturday). San Francisco is a much bigger conference than San Diego (the first place I assisted Ana), so it was a different kind of energy working with a larger group of both students and assistants. This time around, I was a little less nervous because I knew what to expect, although I was still was apprehensive about wanting to do a good job and help make it an incredible class experience for the students.

The biggest challenge as an assistant is staying present and really tapping into the energy of the class. In the seat of an observing assistant, I had a number of insights about the weekend:

1) People are really stressed out. As a general rule, people are incredibly hard on themselves, even in a yoga practice. Tight necks were almost universal. Keeping a relaxed neck when you’re not used to doing so is really a challenge. I put a hand alongside the head of a few students and asked them to rest their head completely into my hand. Even then, it usually took a few more, “No, really let your head hang completely” before they really could let go. It touched me how powerful a single pose can be–even finding just one a moment of being free of pain or stress can be such a tremendous relief.

2) No one is off the hook. Everyone gets challenged in Forrest Yoga to push their edges. Several very obviously fit and experienced students came to the class with an air of confidence. These very same students were sweating away and struggling to stay with the intensity as the class wore on. Forrest Yoga has a way of humbling even the most advanced yogi. We assistants were not immune either. As we did the yoga practice in the early hours before the conference sessions, we encountered frustrations, corrections, and trying to get our brain around new poses and variations. As a result of my own struggles, I felt myself really empathizing with the challenges that the students of all abilities were experiencing, and feeling for how I could find that balance between supporting them, but also encouraging to stay with it and ride through the intensity.

3) Another key thing I’m learning to do is receive feedback. My first instinct when Ana (or other people who I really respect) say something critical to me is to immediately feel terrible and assume the worst: “Ana must think I’m screwing up right and left. She’ll probably never want me back as an assistant. Everyone else is probably wondering why I’m on this assisting team.” Instead, I’m working on having a different reaction. When I start to go into that immediate reaction, I’m trying to catch myself and take the feedback as what it is: part of the learning process. I try to put the feedback in it’s proper place. Ana told me to change something or not do something. Period. I can take that to improve instead of going down my usual spiral of doubt, shame, and assumptions, which not only isn’t helpful, but takes away from the kind of confident, attentive presence I need to be a good assistant.

4) Evolution isn’t optional. Ana is demanding of her students, mentors, assistants, and trainees alike. However, she is equally demanding of herself. Every time I practice with her, I notice a way she has refined her teaching, changed something, and/or added something new. She is continually evolving and refuses to settle for any of the rest of us not doing the same.

The weekend left me exhausted, but full of gratitude for the experience of being around a truly inspiring teacher, colleagues who I have tremendous respect for, and the roomfuls of courageous students willing to dive into Forrest Yoga with us.

Evolve On!

Everyone Likes Lemonade

It’s official! Lemonade is now a 501 (c) (3) registered nonprofit!

Aside from being a refreshing summer beverage, Lemonade is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the benefits of yoga to at-risk youth.

It started off with a way to log volunteer hours for the Forrest Yoga certification. Three years ago, Sandy Till began teaching a weekly class to one of the units at San Francisco Juvenile Hall. Despite the many challenges that come with teaching at-risk youth, Sandy continued to come back every week. She gradually expanded the program to teach classes to more of the units and now teaches every unit in the hall. In addition, Lemonade works with the Youth Guidance Center Improvement Committee (YGCIC) to teach sessions to youth on probation.

There are a number of yoga programs for incarcerated youth out there. The Art of Yoga Project is one such great organization. But many of these just serve girls in juvenile detention, so recognizing the need to reach boys as well, Lemonade teaches all of the boys’ units, as well as the girls unit at SF Juvenile Hall. Lemonade is also unique in that it uses the Forrest Yoga system of yoga as a basis for its teaching. As a Forrest Yoga instructor, Sandy has found this method of teaching to be the most healing and empowering way that she knows to work with students of any kind and particularly helpful for the population Lemonade serves.

I was fortunate enough to be involved with Lemonade as a teacher for a year and a half. Like Sandy, I started off to get volunteer hours and just kept on coming back. It was an amazing process to witness as the program expanded and staff support for the yoga classes continued to grow. I couldn’t be more thrilled to see its evolution into a bonafide nonprofit.

Give Lemonade a “Like” on Facebook and check out the regular reports about classes in the hall. If you’re a yoga instructor, Forrest Yoga or otherwise, consider getting involved as an instructor with Lemonade. It’s an experience to drink up.

Top 10 Costumes from Bay to Breakers

Flickr photo from Kevin Krejci

Sometimes I love San Francisco, even when the forecast is foggy rain in the middle of May. The annual Bay to Breakers is one of those quintessential San Francisco events that I love.
Getting to the starting line, I watched as a group of Japanese tourists looked on with slightly puzzled looks, cautiously smiling as they took a picture of a woman dressed as a bride with thigh-high garters, accompanied by two friends in tacky bridesmaid dresses. A couple of businessmen emerged from the nearby convention center looking bewildered.

This year, San Francisco officials proclaimed that they’d be cracking down on the Bay to Breakers shenanigans. There’d be none of this beer drinking and nakedness and floats were officially banned from the race. As a result, there were no floats to speak of, but there were record numbers of participants dressed as law enforcement officials, particularly SFPD. Walking over to meet up with my friends, I stepped over twelve packs of beer and dodged half a dozen naked people running (never the people you ever want to see unclothed) through a cloud of marijuana smoke to our meeting place.  Ah, the spirit of Bay to Breakers will go on, crackdown be damned!

Top 10 Costumes from 2011 Bay to Breakers

Photo from Melissa Chang

10. Robots
These ladies were just two of the handfuls of elaborate robot costumes I spotted. Expertly crafted…and how can you not like robots?

9. Osama Bin Laden
I was surprised that I actually only saw one such costume as I thought it might be a popular one this year. It also surprised me that there was no Obama costume or perhaps an Obama/Osama hybrid, with one person sporting the beard and robes, the other waving a birth certificate

8. Jellyfish
I loved the family of jellyfish. Mom, dad, and kids all had a what looked like a pastel-colored, balloon-like jelly fish top attached to their head with little streamers running down. So simple, yet clever and original.

7. Frank Chu
No, honestly, it wasn’t the real Frank Chu, only a guy that looked stunningly like him, complete with the sign. My friend first thought it was actually Frank himself until he got a closer look.

6. Zone of Zero Tolerance
Well it certainly was not an illegal float, but rather a running tent touting the law enforcement decry. The SF Zone of Zero Tolerance Tent zipped along with several costumed law enforcement officials pounding drinks underneath.

5.  Celebrities!
It was a tie between a lady Elvis, a stunningly accurate Prince, circa “Purple Rain”, and a crazed looking young man with an, “I’m on a drug called Charlie Sheen. Winning!” sign.

Image from Sylvain Kalachie's photostream

4. Bacon
It takes many running bacon bits to make a striplet. Even vegans have to smile.

3. Traveling Port-a-Pottie
Complete with a sign that read, “Come in if you want to get shit-faced.”

2. Running Grandmas
Armed with walkers, hairnets, and bifocals, grannies with names like “Gertrude” and “Bernice” bustled along.

1. Hey, what a great costume! Oh wait…
After the race you’d still see many race-goers around. However, it was sometimes hard to determine if the person in question was wearing a great costume for Bay to Breakers or was actually just a regular denizen of San Francisco.

More pictures here!