I walk into the building and am greeted by one of the two security guards that manage the metal detector. I hand over my keys and walk into the main entrance of my city’s local juvenile detention center. I trade my drivers license for an orange numbered visitor’s badge, write my name, purpose of visiting today, pen my signature and take a seat. In the main hall I begin to feel where my toes lie in my shoes. I feel my breath and attempt clear my mind. It is difficult not to be interested in the going-on’s in such a place. It is a room of mixed emotions, family’s, counselors, officers, drenched in peach colored tiles and walls, the mission statement boldly printed on two of the four walls. I am here to teach yoga to incarcerated youth.
A corrections officer greets me to take me “back”. We walk through several very heavy, loud slamming doors towards the gym near the center of the facility. He lets me into the storage unit where I have left 13 colorful mats rolled up neatly on a shelf. I thank the C.O. and he leaves me in the gym, door slamming securely shut behind him, echoing off the white bricked walls. I begin to roll out the mats in a circle and once again work on conscious breathing. I see 6 teenage boys line up in the hallway, accompanied by a different C.O. Some of them look through the window at the mats, some of them keep their heads down. As they are escorted into the gym in single file, I ask them to remove their shoes, pick a mat and sit down. Today is a group I have been working with for a while, with only one new student. We start by checking in: how are you feeling today? This particular group always makes sure to check in with me, too. We begin to talk about what yoga is. I hear things like “relaxation”, “meditation”, “breathing”, “strength”, “stretching”, “concentration”, “peace” and others. Bingo.
We go over the agreements: non-violence, an open mind, and respect to self and others. They nod their head, ready to get to the practice already. “Come on teach, we know this stuff.”
“Press your feet into the mat and stand up tall. Deep inhale, reach your arms up.” - we begin.
It was not always so simple to teach in this setting. I admit in the beginning, I was very nervous and would be disappointed by disruptions and harsh judgement from the students. I learned very quickly what worked and what didn’t. I learned to never have a lesson plan, but rather to teach to the energy of the room. My relationship wth non-attachment transformed as I found my flow in the halls of juvie.
Working with teenagers requires you to be incredibly honest with yourself, to regularly sit with the teachings of ahimsa/non-violence and to walk your talk. I joke that teens are like horses, they can sniff out fear and everything fake. To be the most real version of myself is the only way I am able to communicate clearly and effectively, to offer them yoga in a healthy and meaningful way, and honestly, to enjoy the process of teaching in that setting.
We all lay down for savasana and I lead them through a simple yoga nidra. The gym becomes very quiet, even the buzz of the lights seem to agree that now is time for silence. I gently bring them back to seated after a good long, well-deserved rest, and we meditate. We check in at the end of the class: “Pick one word that best describes how you feel right now.” I hear things like “better”, “relaxed”, “chill”, “thoughtful”, "loose" and of course, “sleepy”.
I never know why the students are in juvenile detention. Details are unnecessary when it comes to people teaching people about breath and mindfulness. In those moments, we lift the illusionary veil of separation and we are all learning from each other. Each class is an opportunity for us to connect, learn, laugh, fall, get back up, and reflect. It is difficult to put into words the incredible feeling I have about this very special class I get to teach twice a week, so I will borrow the words from a 13 year old, incarcerated student: “It’s like when I’m doing this, I feel okay. I forget that I’m here, and I’m free.”
By Hannah B./ULP Founding Director