Empowered Practice: Sharing Yoga and Literature with Teens
I was young. I was shy.
I had eyes that were never dry.
And in my life. I had a void
A vacancy that I could not avoid.
A flower wilts without water
Without the proper care
So I bowed my head, colors dull
Because my father wasn’t there
And as I grew, for my pain, I went fishing
For a few close friends who had what I was missing
Thinking that in some way that could fill the missing piece
So that the puzzle, my life, could feel somewhat complete
So emotional attachment became a character trait
Insecure about others leaving me,
And myself I began to hate
But after failed attempts, and uncovered scars
I held onto myself, and put together my broken parts
Realization came that I am complete
I might be different, but I have to learn to love me
It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t even born
So when I look into the mirror, myself I shouldn’t scorn
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise
I am beautiful and whole, so I rise
My old watery eyes, should now be dried,
Because I am complete, so I rise.
—Gwendolyn, 10th Grade
Everyone was silent after she finished, including me. Gwendolyn’s reading of her life served as an invitation for others to share, as well as to relive moments in their lives. The instructor for Yoga, Literature and Art Camp for Teen Girls (YLA) on this day was Maya, a full-time yoga teacher who had taught middle school for ten years before deciding to leave the field at the end of the previous school year. Maya was the first teacher I recruited to teach the girls at YLA camp. Maya and I have had countless conversations around our experiences as Black women within yoga communities and our experiences as Black teachers serving Black and Brown children in predominantly white schools. As soon as Maya learned about the camp, she was on board and ready to participate in any way she could. Prior to the start of the camp, Maya voluntarily created a snack menu for participants and donated the majority of the fresh fruit and water. Teaching was second nature to her. Before camp began, I wondered what types of stories we would create with the girls, and how much they would inform both our teaching and our yoga practices.
Gwendolyn’s reading of her life served as an invitation for others to share, as well as to relive moments in their lives.
Because of Maya’s experience with middle school youth, I consulted her regarding ways in which we could further literacy in YLA camp. Initially, our plan was to have the girls read a novel, and then for the yoga instructors to integrate themes from the book into their yoga classes. However, Maya and I decided to focus on poems authored by Women of Color since we only had eight days and multiple teachers working with the girls. This would allow each yoga instructor the opportunity to select poems to accompany their class.
I offered teachers my own selection of poems, in case they needed suggestions. Poems by Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, and Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie were some of the works integrated into YLA camp. On the second day of YLA camp, Maya chose Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” (1978) as the guiding poem for the yoga class she facilitated. The following excerpt is taken from the beginning of Maya’s lesson that day:
Maya: “You all are beautiful. My name is Maya, feel free to call me that. So today our practice will be focused around the word and concept of “rising,” and what it means to rise. So without putting a whole bunch of thought into it, it’s just like, when you hear the word rise what comes to mind? It can be popcorn style. Just say what comes to mind.”
Girls begin: “Phoenix”
Maya: “Jesus? Well, amen!” (Giggles heard in the background.) “So we have to come up with a definition of 'to rise,' just kind of like if someone asks: 'What does it mean to rise?'”
“To move up!”
“To progress!” two other girls exclaimed simultaneously.
Maya: “Anything else?” (Pauses for response.) “And then maybe if someone needs to rise, it means that perhaps they're being—fill in the blank.”
One girl energetically shouts the word “promoted.”
Maya: “What are some things you can rise from, or to, or through?”
(The words “sleep” and “oppression” are heard in the circle.)
Maya: “Some might say sleep is a form of oppression. Like you could be asleep literally or metaphorically. Like, just not aware. Are you with me?”
(Silence followed by laughter.)
“So that’s just to get your thinking minds, your intellectual minds, thinking about what it means to rise.
“So we’ve got the Phoenix. We’ve got Jesus. We’ve got yeast.”
“We are human beings. We can fall down and we can rise again and again. So this practice is going to be focused on movement upward. So, in the spirit of moving upward, go ahead and find an 'easy seat'—whatever feels good. And if you have a cushion you might want to sit on the edge of the cushion. And let’s roll down. Let’s slump and close our eyes in this slump. Just notice how the base of the spine feels all the way up to the center of your heart. How does your heart feel when you are folded over? Can you even breathe deeply? And then with your eyes closed, begin to feel what you feel in your physical body while you are in this shape. Go ahead and walk your hands back and start to rise up. Then, bring your hands to your knees. I call this the Frankenstein stance. Keep squeezing and now bring your shoulders back and around and feel your heart open up. Begin thinking about the center of your chest. Inhale and then rise up even more. Now soften into this rising.
“So y’all don’t have to be rigid. Notice the difference in the space around your heart when you’re rising up versus falling down. Just notice if it feels any different. And then draw your hands into this arisen heart. Then lift your heart to your head, and then we let the head bow down just a little bit. Then I like to take a deep breath in through the nose. You can’t be shy about this. Exhale through your mouth, hands to your heart.
“I always give people a chance; no matter where I teach, I invite people to set their intention. So collectively, I would love for us to think about intention. So each time our hands come back to our hearts, we think: 'I rise.'”
Together like a chorus, the girls bring their hands to their hearts and say in unison, “I rise.” I observe that some of the girls are uncertain when to say the words, looking to one another for cues. Maya takes notice too, and everyone giggles in response to the uncertainty.
Together like a chorus, the girls bring their hands to their hearts and say in unison, "I rise."
Maya continues: “So we are going to plug into the floor. When you root down, you are able to rise. Here is the key to getting balanced: Focus on just one point. If you focus on someone else who is moving, then you eventually move, right? Now lift your hand slowly. See how much more balanced we are? You pull in your belly a little bit, but not so much that you can’t breathe. Wait, you all look like you can’t breathe.” (Girls fall out of posture and burst into laughter.)
For the next 90 minutes, Maya guided the girls through a yoga practice anchored in Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” Integrating yoga postures that embody the upward movement of rising, Maya engaged the personal experiences and feelings of the girls in ways that transcended both time and space. This experiential literacy community valued the roles of both the mind and body throughout the learning process. The girls opened to the teaching in a way that was being articulated through their bodies, words, and the action of remembering lived experiences.
“I feel like Buddha,” giggled Lauryn. Sitting gracefully with her legs crossed in a meditative position, Lauryn’s eyes were closed as her thumbs and index fingers touched lightly. Lauryn was the tallest of the girls, but not the oldest. Starting a new school in the fall as a ninth grader, Lauryn expressed her anxiety about this transition more than once during the camp. She also shared her uncertainty about coming to YLA camp without knowing anyone there.
“I just didn’t know if people were going to be nice,” she expressed on the last day of camp during our final circle discussion. “But everyone is. Like, I can honestly say everyone is genuinely nice.”