Recollections From a Former Aspiring Altruist
Teaching Yoga to Incarcerated Kids
When I was in my mid-twenties, more or less everything I did came from a place of wanting to be more selfless (and to be honest, also from a place of wanting to make my parents proud). Looking back, I probably wasn’t one of the most altruistic people on the planet, but I really, really wanted to be. That desire to help others led me to apply concurrently to law school and yoga teacher training. I wanted to do human rights work, but I also knew that law school would be stressful and expensive. So I talked my parents into paying for yoga teacher training, selling it to them as the perfect law school stress-reliever and side job. Then, by the time I finished law school, right around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, it was difficult to obtain a full-time job as a lawyer. While waiting to find out if I had passed the bar exam, I found myself teaching more and more yoga, supplementing my teaching with the occasional short-term office job. My parents started questioning why I ever went to law school. I started wondering the same thing, until I came across an opportunity to teach yoga at a Virginia juvenile detention center.
This opportunity arrived via an organization working to share the gift of yoga within underserved populations. I knew nothing about this organization—which at the time was really just a group of people with an email address who were brainstorming about starting a nonprofit. However, their lack of any real business structure or resources did not stop me from responding to an email looking for yoga instructors to teach youth detainees, ages 12 to 17, who were awaiting sentencing for serious crimes. Nor was I deterred by the detention facility’s website, which explained that the youths were imprisoned because they required secure custody for either their own protection or that of the community, or by the ad’s statement that a large majority of these juvenile detainees suffered from “depression, abuse, and addiction.”
To my twenty-something, underemployed, law-school-graduate self, teaching yoga to incarcerated youths seemed like the perfect opportunity to help others and simultaneously fulfill my desperate desire to prove to my parents (and myself) that I was not “just” a yoga teacher. Although my experience with this population had been limited to teaching a class on “youth justice” to Washington, D.C., public high school students (meaning I had no real experience), I immediately, enthusiastically, and blindly volunteered for the position.
To my twenty-something, underemployed, law-school-graduate self, teaching yoga to incarcerated youths seemed like the perfect opportunity to help others.
Practically fresh out of law school and new to teaching yoga outside of a studio or gym setting, I hopped in my dad’s car and drove to the detention facility. Somehow I was convinced that the experience was going to both make a difference in these kids’ lives and jump-start my legal career. I was armed with the facility’s address (about an hour’s drive from my home) and an email (titled “We Are Officially in Business!”) listing 10 observations another teacher had made when he taught at the facility the week before. Translation: I could not have been more unprepared.
With a smile on my face, I approached the woman at the security desk and said, “Hi! I’m here to teach the kiddos some yoga!”
The woman looked at me like I had horns coming out of my ears and then turned around and walked away. What felt like an eternity later, she returned and flatly said, “License or another form of identification.”
After providing my ID, I was guided through an old metal detector, circa-1990 airport security, and then taken to a large room that resembled a high school gymnasium in a building that had seen better days.
Despite the less-than-welcoming arrival and the lackluster appearance of the yoga space, I cheerfully waited for my students to arrive. A guard informed me that the “detainees” were being given a choice: come take “exercise” class with me or go to the library. He mentioned that the library was little more than a small room with a stack of outdated books, so the likelihood that they would choose “exercise” was probably pretty good.
Finally, my first group of students arrived—four young-looking teens in matching grey sweatsuits, socks, and sneakers. They walked sluggishly toward me while the guard I had been talking to earlier helped me to roll out some thick, tattered exercise mats provided by the facility. Then the guard moved to stand in the corner.
My optimism turned to nervousness. I introduced myself as a yoga instructor, making no mention of my law degree or interest in the juvenile justice system, and then quietly asked the boys to take off their sneakers and socks. One took off his sneakers while the other three turned to each other and started to chat among themselves.
The guard started to walk over as I raised my voice just a little bit to explain that it was good to take off their sneakers and socks so they could spread their toes in the movements that would require more balance.
I tried again, trying to think like a teenage boy and speaking a tad bit louder: “Umm, I just figured you might think it’s kind of gross to stand on the mat in your sneakers and then, like, stick your face in the spot where your shoes just were.”
I got a few chuckles, a declaration that one boy’s face was going nowhere near that mat, and then, like magic, the shoes came off. I waited until later to try (unsuccessfully) for the socks.
Once I got all of the boys in a seated position, I suggested they close their eyes and begin to breathe in and out through their noses. More chuckles as they sat there—eyes wide open. After walking them through about ten minutes of asana practice while feeling like I was getting nowhere, I stopped talking and just dropped into crow pose.
All of a sudden, I had their attention. “Teach me! Teach me!”
As I walked them through the posture step by step, breathing and all, I watched what I was teaching and what they were doing transform from exercise into yoga. Even if only for a moment, their bodies relaxed, and it appeared that their minds focused solely on my words and how following my instructions would help them achieve the task literally at hand—balancing on their hands. Each time one of the boys stuck the posture, rather than tease the ones still trying, I observed them attempt to teach the others what they had figured out and cheer them on.
As I walked them through the posture step by step, breathing and all, I watched what I was teaching and what they were doing transform from exercise into yoga.
Just after I had guided the students to savasana (final relaxation) and was standing there feeling good about my accomplishment, a burst of static broke the calm. A loud voice followed, announcing, from a walkie-talkie on the guard's belt, that it was time to switch to the second group.
The next thing I knew, the guard was hovering over the boys, yelling abruptly, “Get up! Exercise time is over!”
That was not exactly the relaxing ending to a yoga class that I always aspired to provide.
Regardless, it was time for the girls’ group. Since the boys’ class had gone so well, I thought I had it made, and indeed, things were going smoothly until I brought my students onto their bellies for locust pose. During a studio-based yoga class I might have offered an alternative, such as a tabletop position, explaining that this is a great modification for anyone who is pregnant. Naively, I had assumed I didn’t need to offer any prenatal modifications in this setting. Boy, was I wrong.
One of the girls pointed at another, the youngest looking girl in the group, and asked me if it was okay for her to be on her stomach. I casually responded, “Sure, why wouldn’t it be?” She asked if I was stupid and then stated that the girl was pregnant. I apologized, but from that moment on, it was clear that I had lost their confidence and attention. I tried similar tactics that I had used with the boys’ group—jokes, fun postures, even making fun of myself—but nothing worked. I seemed to have lost all credibility in their eyes. They talked through savasana, and this time, it was I who cut the class short. About two minutes before our time together was up, I turned to the guard to tell him that class was over.
I remember leaving feeling embarrassed, somewhat defeated—and completely naïve. The progress I had made with the boys’ group had disappeared the moment the guard had jolted them out of savasana. And the girls' group, well, that was just a disaster. I remember telling my parents that the whole thing was a waste of time and that I never wanted to teach yoga anywhere but in a yoga studio ever again. However, I couldn’t bring myself to quit, so I felt relieved when the whole program fell apart only a week later after another teacher’s car broke down and another decided the drive to the detention facility was too long.
Even so, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I did learn a lot from this experience. For starters, I learned that letting go of expectations for a yoga class is just as important for a teacher as it is for students. Although the detention center students may have entered the yoga sessions in the way that I instruct all of my studio students to try to do, leaving their expectations at the door, I entered the room with a host of expectations—completely unrealistic expectations about solving my career woes, impressing my parents, and profoundly impacting the direction of these kids’ lives, all through one yoga class. Today, I no longer assume everything I do will be completely selfless; I realize that understanding what expectations are driving my decision to teach a class is a key first step toward serving my students in the best way I possibly can. Even if I can’t let go of my expectations entirely, I am always much more grounded, much better prepared to adapt to the situation at hand and relate directly to what the students need, after I have identified what my expectations are.
I also learned the importance of preparing, to the best of my ability, for the specific surroundings and students I expect to teach. Not everyone has a beautiful yoga studio or fitness facility in which to practice. Not everyone wants or needs a physically challenging yoga class.
If I could do it again, I would visit the detention facility and/or speak with the facility’s administrators in advance to get a better sense of who the students are and how I can best serve them. I would do more research on how to teach students who are potentially suffering from depression, abuse, and addiction.
Although I will never be 100 percent prepared for anything, being so utterly unprepared taught me that if I do a little extra legwork up front, identify my true intentions and expectations, and generally do the best that I can to serve, my students and I will all benefit more from the experience.
A few months after the detention center classes, I enrolled in an informative program called Street Yoga, where I learned more about the types of issues that might arise when teaching yoga in a context like the one I had taught in that day. More recently, at a yoga conference in New York City, I was surprised to see a booth for Liberation Prison Yoga, an organization that teaches yoga to inmates and sex trafficking survivors. I later looked online and discovered that there are many more resources out there today than there were—or at least many more than I was aware of—when I taught at the detention center back in 2009. Today, organizations actually train yoga teachers how to teach to people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and needs, from the LGBT community, to athletes, to inmates, to Wounded Warriors. In fact, the organization that connected me with the detention center still exists and does things a lot differently now, providing significant training and support for their future teachers.
A few months after the detention center classes, I enrolled in an informative program called Street Yoga.
Looking back, the experience was not as much of a disaster as I initially believed it to be. After all, each of my students—kids who had a whole lot more on their shoulders than I had—eventually cracked a smile and seemed to “let go” (even if only for a moment and even if only because they were too busy laughing at me to be stuck in their own heads). Although I am well aware that I could have done a much better job, by writing this article I may have just inspired myself to serve again…after I get a little more educated and take some time to prepare, of course. And maybe sharing this experience—and all of the mistakes that I made along the way—might even inspire you to connect with local nonprofits to educate yourself about how you can best serve in similar settings. I hope so.
What seemed like a disaster taught me a lot about myself and made me a better teacher, and I hope that sharing my experience with you will lead you to insights of your own that might enhance your teaching or—at the very least— remind you that there is value in even your most unimpressive and uncomfortable moments, as long as you are open to learning from the experience.