A lot has changed in my life since I started to explore what it means to be a wild woman. My work life usually involves cerebral pursuits, such as accounting and writing computer software manuals. The exploration of wildness brought my body, heart, and spirit into my work life in a more obvious way. One of the ways, which I want to talk about today, is that I volunteer teaching yoga—a body-based and spiritual practice—to young adults in prison.
The classes I’ve been teaching are at an “open” facility, a less restrictive facility that is for youth who are incarcerated for a short time, or who have already been in a more secure facility and have been promoted to the open facility on their way to full release. The class sizes are very small—a maximum of 6 students. Some weeks I have only had the young men’s class because there were few young women left in the open facility and none wanted to come. So the students in the class change every week. For example, last week I taught five young men, of whom three had been there before, and three young women, one of whom was a repeat student. The first time she’d been to class she was the only student!
Teaching yoga poses to youth
I have been teaching a “daily dozen” of basic poses, beginning with seated meditative time learning and practicing the Ujjayi (victorious) breath, and finishing with Savasana (corpse or resting pose). There usually isn’t time to do all 12 poses, and now that I’ve been doing it for a few months I vary around those ones in response to what’s happening in the class.
I’ve never taught youth before, but from what I’ve since learned talking to other teachers, it is not unusual for these students to need to chat almost constantly! This was a shock at first, as it is very different from adult classes. But I’ve gotten used to it. It helps to know it is not a sign of disrespect, and not to take it personally. Another thing is that many of the students have injuries, conditions such as ADD or ADHD that make it difficult for them to sustain focus, or chronic physical problems. So usually not everyone can do every pose.
What works is to be really flexible, keep it fun, not be too serious. For me having the frame of the daily dozen, which is my own daily practice, helps as a reference point. And from there I respond to what the students are interested in. For example, last week one student was resting and doing a twist lying down on her back, so I added that pose at the end. She said “I was just doing that!” and it tickled her to have the class do it.
So that’s some of what I’ve been discovering. The kids are great. They are very appreciative of the class, and notice the difference it makes in their state of being: how it calms them, makes them feel better. And I find that working with them makes a change in my state of being as well—opening my heart and also deepening me into a ground that is big enough to hold the space for the class.
A couple nights ago something happened in class that is still moving me when I think about it. One of the young men had been in a class where the teacher uses aromatherapy fragrances on the students’ faces during Savasana. He asked if I was going to do that. I didn’t have fragrance with me, but offered to massage their temples instead—something I have learned in teacher training and that one of my favourite teachers always does at the end of class. I asked each young man first if he wanted the massage, to make sure I wasn’t impinging on any body boundaries, and they each did. My heart usually opens towards the students during Savasana anyway, as the students I’ve been teaching for an hour each lay on their backs, covered by a blanket, quieter than they have been throughout the class. But this time, seeing how much each young man longed for a woman’s soothing touch, I felt a new sad tenderness arise.
Hungry ghost realm
When I ran by the river after class I thought about Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, which I read recently, in which he describes how pre-natal and early childhood experiences affect the brain chemistry and lead to addiction. I felt a hopelessness for the young men in the class, in prison for choices they have made while still in their teens. What chance do they have, given the kinds of childhoods they have experienced? I felt hopelessness and also a love and acceptance that this is simply how it is.
I don’t know if attending one yoga class will make a difference in their lives. But maybe, for that one hour, it did. I know that that one hour made a bigger difference in my heart and life than an hour of writing computer software manuals. It is riskier. Wilder. Each time I’m a little afraid to go, not knowing what will happen. And each time, I am opened in an unexpected way. And somehow rise to the occasion, making mistakes and hopefully also facilitating what is needed as being moves through me.