What teaching with Uprising Yoga in Central Juvenile Hall has taught me about non-violence and truthfulness.
“My name is Jessica. I feel excited.”
As part of the structure of an Uprising Yoga class, we start with a check-in and end with a check-out of all the kids and the staff in the unit in which we’re teaching at Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall (CJH). This check in/out includes your name and one word describing how you feel. The difference in the children from the beginning to end of class always humbles me.
I started working with UpRising Yoga over a year ago. UpRising Yoga (URY) was established in 2011 by Jill Weiss Ippolito. The mission of Uprising Yoga is to bring yoga to at-risk youth and to communities that need it most.
Checking in at the beginning of a class can be difficult for some kids. They may not be sure how to respond, and perhaps haven’t checked in with themselves in a while. I don’t blame them either, we go through several security doors, walls lined with barbed wire, and we’re visitors, at the end of the hour we get to leave. It’s not your average yoga studio space. Being in the environment of barbed wire and concrete got me thinking about the environment we create, especially in relation to Ahimsa (non-violence) and Asteya (truthfulness), two of the five Yamas (yogic principles associated with how one relates with others) and how that environment can be built to support or thwart us.
When I first started with URY, Jill asked me, as she does with all new UpRising teachers, to really think about why I’m teaching at Central Juvenile Hall, because it’s not always the “easiest” class to teach. These kids have been through severe trauma. Over half of the populations we teach are CSEC, commercially sexually exploited children. More information on this population can be found here. Given the severe mental, physical, and spiritual trauma many of these children have undergone, knowing your motive for teaching them, and having a pure motive is of utmost importance.
In essence, I was being asked: how had yoga changed my life? And I had to think about it, a LOT. At first, I felt like I had no clue. I knew yoga had helped me quit smoking because once I knew what a full clean breath really felt like I wouldn’t settle for a smoke-filled one. But I also knew that that was just scratching the surface.
What I did know was that I really wanted to be teaching at CJH, and that I felt compelled to create a safe environment for the kids so that no matter what they thought of the class, they would know that during yoga they could be safe and seen.
Class after class keeping the kind of environment I wanted to create in mind, I realized why I was teaching there.
In my own life for a long time I’d been very disconnected between my body and my mind, often ignoring what my body was telling me. This had led to not having boundaries and not trusting that what I felt in my body was valid. However, yoga, meaning union, had begun to uncover the buried, but deep, connection between my mind and body. And I was beginning to once again truly honor and trust that connection. I knew what it felt like to feel strong on the mat and safe on that mat, and that translated then to my life. That is what I wanted to teach.
One night in the girl’s unit, the girls were giggly when asked to breathe in and out together as a class. The girls seemed to be “trying” to hide the giggles that night, as if they felt they were misbehaving. But, in the spirit of Asteya, truthfulness, I leveled with them – that it’s okay to laugh (I’d done it too!):
One of the first times I took a Kundalini class, there was of course chanting. I had never really chanted in a class before, even though I’d practiced other types of yoga for a few years. So, I sort of started to chant because that’s what everyone else was doing, and then I started to laugh. I felt silly and didn’t know why I was chanting. Then as I was half laughing half chanting, I realized I was breathing more deeply. So then I started chanting more, to help me breathe through the difficult movements of the physical practice. I was really getting into the chanting, and I started to laugh because I realized how into the chanting I had become in a matter of 60 seconds. When I realized that the chanting was helping me even more with the movement, I no longer felt the need to laugh at it, and I enjoyed the chanting fully. Sometimes we laugh to get us through unfamiliar experiences.
I told the girls this, and it immediately put them at ease.
The girls no longer had to try and hide what their bodies were experiencing.
Yoga is a tool for empowerment. Learning to pay attention to one’s own body and breath in the present moment allows for a safe practice. It also builds trust within oneself – when to be strong, when to be flexible, and how to maintain balance. This knowledge becomes a sort of compass for one’s own experience.
Everyone’s compass is unique to them. What my body tells me isn’t what someone else’s body is telling them. Everyone’s experience is not only unique, but equally valid and sacred.
Though we can’t always control everything in our environment, we can treat ourselves and each other with compassion and honesty, in both body and mind. And I see it in the students. I see their faces change when the teacher points out something they’re doing well, as if they can’t believe they’re being called out for doing something positive. Their check-ins and check-outs share so much of the growth and change they’ve experienced during the class.
An environment where non-violence and truthfulness is the modus operandi promotes this growth and change. When the outer environment allows for this, it gives the kids an opportunity to change their inner environment – how they think about themselves and how they choose to react to what goes on outside of them.
The staff at Central Juvenile Hall are very supportive of the program and have told us how the program has benefited the kids. One student was nervous at court and so began breathing deeply. The staff member asked what they were doing, and the student said they were doing their yoga breathing to help calm them down.
“Yoga is a gift, no one can take it from you.” This is one phrase we tell our students during each URY class. The UpRising teachers are there to give the gift of yoga. But equally important, the students are there to receive that gift. A gift is “a thing given willingly to someone.” The students’ willingness to learn and openness to receive allows the gift to be given. Yoga is a gift that I love giving to support the students in learning their boundaries and the validity of their experience.
Working with the kids in CJH has taught me to honor my own voice. It has given me and continues to give me a deep respect for my own and everyone’s trauma and an understanding that no one person’s experience is more valid than another. But we are all working on fine tuning our own inner compass to navigate through life the best we can. May we all do so with a little more compassion and truthfulness.
“My name is Jessica. I feel grateful.”
Jessica Spotts is a is a nationally certified Yoga instructor (at the 200-Hour Level with the Yoga Alliance). She received her 200-hour certification at the Sphota Yoga School in Santa Monica, CA in the mentorship program with Laurie Searle (“Lady Yoga”), an inspiring teacher full of generosity and enthusiasm. Jessica teaches in the style of Vinyasa Flow and Hatha. She believes that yoga can be for everyone, using breath, postures, and philosophy to bring mindfulness/awareness to our habits, both physical and mental. She is passionate about yoga, the environment, and the ability for yoga to awaken a sense of freedom and action in one’s life. She has been practicing yoga for over 5 years and has taught with Uprising Yoga at Central Juvenile Hall in downtown Los Angeles since September 2013. Uprising’s mission is to create an empowering program to heal at-risk youth, for a safe place to confidently conquer challenges. www.greenspottsyoga.com