January 31, 2013

What Homeless Youth Taught Me about Savasana. ~ Katie Mahon

Photo: Bindhi Mehndi

I began teaching yoga to at-risk and homeless youth quite by happenstance, though I suppose the path of dharma is never really one of happenstance.

I was to volunteer in a community center with a marginalized population as part of a practicum placement for my undergraduate degree. I approached a center for at-risk and homeless youth; the center was looking for a yoga teacher. I have now been teaching youth at this center and other similar centers around my city for a few years.

It has been the most humbling teaching experience I have ever been blessed with.

For, very quickly, it was I who became the student, and my students who became the teachers.

In his book, Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar describes Savasana (corpse pose) as “one of the most difficult to master.” He notes, “It is much harder to keep the mind than the body still.”

This is a truth I can personally attest to, especially as I reflect back on the earlier years of my practice. Often I would struggle to calm my mind as I came into Savasana at the end of an asana practice. I would hear my teacher say, “Focus the mind on the action of being relaxed.”

For me, this tended to manifest as the militant mantra: “Relax! Relax! Relax!” It’s no wonder that, inevitably, I drifted into daydreams about my next strapping boyfriend, what else I could possibly make with quinoa, whether or not I really needed a glass of wine after class…

There was just nothing relaxing about forcing myself to relax—it is definitely counterintuitive! And still, after many years of practice, there are days when genuine stillness is difficult to achieve. It is a truly foreign practice in the fast-paced, capitalist culture of the West.

I remember vividly my first class at the youth center, a stunning heritage building retrofitted as a space to nurture and support homeless and at-risk youth. We were to practice in a beautiful, open space filled with natural light. The big, open windows were set into exposed brick walls, allowing the light to cast small shadows across the original hardwood floors.

The space was serene and quiet—the youth were not! The class was to run 45 minutes, and it was suggested by one of the staff that at the 35-minute mark I bring the class into Savasana.

Ten minutes of Savasana?! I couldn’t imagine that a room full of denim-clad, hormonal, lippy teenagers, marginalized and homeless, could lie still for so long. In the classes I taught at studios around the city, often students could hardly be in Savasana for five minutes without fidgeting, especially beginning practitioners. Nonetheless, being that it was my first day and all, I adhered to the suggestion.

After 35 minutes of asana, to the tune of much complaining, joking and gossiping (among other bodily noises perceived to be hilarious), I asked the youth to lie flat on their mats.

Gently, I invited the youth into Savasana. Gently, I asked the youth to begin to disconnect from their physical bodies, from their senses, and to allow their physical bodies to soften into their mats and relax. Gently, I asked the youth to soften their breath, letting their breathing be natural, completely uncontrolled. Gently, I asked the youth to soften their minds, to let go of all thought, reason and logic. I reminded the youth that this time was just for them, to be still within themselves, with nothing to do but become truly relaxed.

I watched, and became deeply humbled.

Nobody moved.

The class full of homeless and at-risk individuals, highly vulnerable and marginalized young people and teenagers no less, lay still. Not a muscle flinched; neither a snore nor a cough was heard; all itches and scratches went unattended. The whole room was completely still for 10 full minutes.

I considered this: When in the lives of these kids could they lie down knowing that they were safe, warm and welcome?

When in their day-to-day lives could they take a moment to release the agitations of the mind, to truly have a moment of serene peace, not needing to watch their bags or their backs? Is it possible that in Savasana, they may have glimpsed the deepest part of themselves, this perfect point of stillness, a point unscathed by all the adversity they’d faced thus far? Might this be a catalyst for healing?

Of course, I cannot pretend to know with certainty what happened in those 10 minutes, nor what happened during Savasana in the classes I have taught in the years following. In fact, those 10 minutes were the spark for the thesis work I have just begun in my Master of Arts program, in which I seek to better understand these questions and the potential that exists within them.

However, I do know that on that day, when I offered the youth a choice between staying in Savasana an extra 15 minutes, to round out the hour, and going, half the class stayed.

I continue to be similarly astounded every time I teach this group, and similar groups. So, perhaps Savasana resonated. Certainly, they’d left me with a lesson in complete and total surrender. A lesson I have taken to my own mat, into my own practice.

Safe, warm and welcome.


Katie Mahon is a lifelong learner, yogi, SATTVA practitioner and teacher, avocado enthusiast, Tar Heels basketball fanatic, outdoor adventurer, permanent state of wanderlust, big sister, baby daughter, auntie and best friend. www.theyogaloft.com.


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