November 5, 2013

Everyone Deserves Yoga. ~ Kristina Peterson

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Many of us come to discover the incredible healing benefits of yoga as our personal practice grows. We discover how yoga and meditation can bring peace of mind to both our body and soul. And so we take a teacher training in the hopes of sharing those benefits with others.

Most yogis truly feel a call to service, to teach to groups that may be completely unaware of the benefits yoga can bring, but we have no idea where to begin. The bureaucracy surrounding anything new in municipal services can be completely overwhelming. In my search to find an outlet for service, I found an amazing group working in the Atlanta, Georgia area.

Centering Youth is an organization that brings yoga and mindfulness training to people who most need it. Young people and their families who may be homeless, traumatized, abused, or in trouble with the legal system. People who are most in need of the empowering benefits of yoga and meditation but are least able to access them.

Holle Black is an experienced yoga teacher with an extensive background in victim advocacy and trauma sensitive yoga training. Robert Altman is an attorney and yoga practictioner who has trained with Off the Mat Into the World, Street Yoga and Grounded Yoga. They founded Centering Youth with the goal of providing a safe, respectful environment where young people and their support network could learn self-awareness, self-control and self-respect. Using yoga and meditation, they give at risk youth and adults tools for gaining self-confidence. Currently they work with the juvenile courts in Fulton and Dekalb Counties, Georgia, and provide weekly classes for kids in the juvenile justice system, as well as their family members and court staff.

Big Words. Big Mission. But what does it mean?

It means they provide unique and focused yoga classes to help their students explore what it feels like to be balanced, feel strong and feel in control. Feelings that the students may be experiencing for the very first time in their young lives.

Everyone, students and teacher, are equal. 

Classes are held in a circle, rather than the usual two or three rigid lines. “It’s a we thing.” Sean Corne’s work is a source of inspiration for Co-Founder Robert Altman, he likes to quote:

“We are all one. I am not here to help you, I am here because our destinies are entwined.”

Everyone is welcome whenever they can get there.

It is acceptable to walk in the door anytime, right up until savasana. Many of their students take public transportation to get to class, things are unpredictable. Co-Founder Holle Black mentioned that one student sometimes arrives just in time for savasana and gently distributes the eye pillows to the fellow students.

Everyone is doing yoga if they are in the room, no matter what they are doing.

Sometimes a student sets up their mat and sleeps the entire class. For some, this environment is the safest, most secure and comfortable place they can rest. The newer students usually laugh, eat, tap on their cell phones. But if you watch them from your peripheral vision, when they think no one is looking, they are sneaking peeks at the class, getting a look at “yoga”. And they stay on their mats. Most of the students are there voluntarily, so the mere act of showing up and staying in the room when they could leave, is yoga.

They’re cutting up and making jokes or staring because they are uncomfortable joining in, but they stay. Yoga begins the second you want to leave the pose. The kids stay on the mat. That’s big. Next class, they may try one pose, the class after that, two. Usually, the most disruptive kids become the most avid students and teachers.

Everyone deserves respect.

The more experienced students frequently teach poses to the new students, despite the fact that they are teenagers and don’t have a fancy yoga training pedigree. They have learned and integrated the pose into their personal practice. They are teaching their peers a skill that has helped them master themselves. And their fellow students respond to seeing equality in action, realizing that they can learn this thing called “yoga” too.

Everyone deserves to be seen and heard and acknowledged.

The students and teachers talk a lot during class. Teachers don’t ask rhetorical questions, answering out loud is accepted and encouraged. Everyone is welcome to share what they are feeling. How do you feel? How does it feel when you press your big toe into the mat? How does it feel to balance? Do you feel different at the end of class? For some, this is the only environment where they can talk about their personal experience without judgement.

Impulse control is at the core of Centering Youth’s mission. Many of their students are young men and women who are in trouble with the legal system. Yoga teaches them balance and strength. How to notice what struggle feels like and push past the point of wanting to give up. How to conquer your first reaction. How to move through something difficult. How to explore what it feels like to control your impulse to react and simply observe. The yoga class precedes an academics class at the court. The teachers have remarked that the students who attend the yoga class are more focused during the tutoring sessions.

It’s an unusual class. Especially unusual because Centering Youth believes in paying their instructors. The organization is entirely funded by donations. They get no financial support from the municipal authorities. Just getting the program into the court system where it could reach the people they wanted to help “was an enormous jigsaw puzzle.” Help from other charity organizations, businesses, yoga studios, individual donors and court employees all made it possible for Centering Youth to start their program.

Co-Founder Robert Altman says, “Paying the teacher is critical, because you get the qualified people and long term commitment. You sustain the program because you are honoring the teacher’s commitment and skill.”

Holle Black adds that “To pay is to validate the work. This is serious and significant training to work with these student populations is needed. There are a lot of power dynamics to be aware of, things that don’t necessarily apply to a regular studio class, there are protocols to follow when teaching breathwork and meditation to people who have been through traumatizing events.” She regularly shares her insights and skills in workshops on teaching trauma sensitive yoga. 

They both believe that yoga is evolving into a serious component of traditional therapy and counseling work. The importance of the mind/body connection is being recognized. “So many people are graduating from teacher training programs who don’t want to teach in traditional studios. People who have a therapy or nursing or counseling background and want to incorporate yoga into their work.”

After speaking with Holle and Robert about their work, I went home, grabbed my old but still in good shape yoga mats to donate, and attended their regular class for juvenile offenders and their caregivers at the Fulton County Juvenile Court.

Seeing the direct impact their work has on the people in the class has made me realize, we can all help in many little ways. Volunteering to help check in students, direct people and set up the room, assist with classes, and training to eventually teach. And of course, donating some dollars so they can continue their work.

I can skip a couple of lattes every week and pitch in.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise



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