I was pumped up. I read everything I could find online about teaching yoga to teens, wrote lesson plans, organized books of anatomy photos to illustrate growing muscles and bones, created sign-in sheets and arrived 30 minutes early for my first class.
“You’ll be in Room 123, about 22 students doing yoga today,” the program coordinator said with a smile. “Boys and girls. . .OK?”
“Sure,” I agreed, brimming with excitement.
Room 123 was the ROTC classroom by day, I transformed it into my yoga room after school. A nice-sized space – about 14 by 20 feet- outfitted with six large folding tables arranged in a U shape and three molded plastic chairs on the outside perimeter of each table. Flags, maps and chalkboards lined the walls with 16 double fluorescent ceiling fixtures above. At one end was a slate-top teacher’s desk, formerly a chemistry lab table, flanked by an enormous TV. A wall phone perched by the classroom door, and years’ worth of framed photos memorializing those students who participated in ROTC lined one wall. Opposite the teacher’s desk were two more long folding tables equipped with three computers and chairs facing the back wall.
My plan for this first session was to talk about what yoga is -- breathing with movement and rest. Then I would touch on why young people should do yoga, give a brief history of yoga, describe right and left brain benefits, do a little breath work and conclude with some seated stretching.
I prepared for 50 minutes of letting the students meet me while I attempted to get a bead on them. I had no yoga mats but planned to use chairs for a stress releasing practice of breathing with movement then follow with a nice, guided relaxation while seated in the chair.
After quickly taking in the lay of the room, I pushed the tables against the walls and moved the chairs into the center. I readied myself at the door, armed with clipboard and sign-in sheet to meet and greet students as they arrived and settled into a seat.
At 4:30 p.m., a herd of amped up seventh through twelfth grade boys and girls thundered down the hall toward 123. They shoved past me and my clipboard at the door, threw book bags on the table tops and commenced a boisterous, name-calling shove fest. Some scrawled foul words on the chalkboards. Others texted on cell phones. The wall phone alarmed with buttons being pushed aggressively by two boys and another boy flicked the ceiling lights on and off. Chairs began to clatter against each other and several students began rifling through the teacher’s desk drawers. Boys on laptops played Grand Theft auto and other video games. Girls were taking selfies and working on each other’s hair styles. One boy sat in a chair, arms crossed, fists clenched staring at me. His expression convinced me that if he had had a knife, I would already be dead.
My assigned faculty partner was late arriving. I bellowed to the students to take a seat with absolutely no effect. One child walked out the classroom door to use the bathroom and half the class left to join her. I loudly tried to introduce myself, but everyone in the room ignored me. I shooed boys away from the teacher’s desk, my fingertips brushing the shoulder of one student who snapped, “You are not allowed to touch me!” I snatched a can of lavender-scented room spray from a small boy spritzing others in the face. By the time I got to him, the can was almost empty.
Wow, I thought to myself. I had mistakenly assumed that in this new arena I would receive the same respect and self-control my community yoga students granted me when they arrived to class and took their seats to await my direction. I was well-prepared to teach yoga but clueless how to lasso order in this frenzied environment.
I was still pondering how to create order in my unexpected circumstances when a thin, younger girl ran straight toward me and stood holding her nose an inch from mine, pumping her arms at her sides and glaring into my face. Luckily I have no personal space needs and stood there quietly waiting to see what would happen next. Finally I smiled and commented she had pretty eyebrows. She let out a loud exasperated sigh and shouted, “Forget it!” to my face before stomping off, stirring laughter from a few of the other girls. About this time, my faculty assistant arrived and hollered for silence. Ignored by the group, he went from one student to the next telling them to sit; a few did.
I tried showing the anatomy pictures. I tried leading a few standing poses. Every few minutes I hollered for attention, sounding louder than I ever knew possible. I stood with my back over the light switch to stop the strobe show. I held my hand over the phone to stop the receiver from being repeatedly slammed. A few students were willing to breathe in and raise arms over head and breathe out lowering hands down, but they usually ended up smacking another child.
At 5:20 the students stampeded for the bus. As I put the tables and chairs back, picked up trash and cleaned the chalkboards, my teacher assistant, who had been gone for most of my session dealing with other student issues, poked his head in and said that the kids are always like this. My sign-in sheet showed 13 but I had counted 21. If teachers really face this every day, I thought, I have no idea how they stay sane.
Week by week I modified my approach to meet the reality of my situation. Backpacks, laptops, cell phones and shoes stayed in the hallway. I took up all the chalk and propped a portable, poster-sized writing board over the wall switch and phone. I blocked access to the front of the teacher’s desk. The program coordinators suggested we have the boys participate one day, girls the next, which we implemented immediately. It helped to a small degree. I made everyone go to the bathroom before entering the yoga room to avoid that steady stream of interruption throughout the yoga session.
I invited some of my community yoga students to attend the class and model how to follow the teacher during a class. One of my community students just happened to be a high school football coach; his presence on the mat astonished the boys who had assumed yoga was just for women. The students watched as coach held each pose until I directed him to step out of it. While holding a warrior II pose, he slowly turned his face to the boys and said, “Ya’ll know that yoga is done in silence, right?” That shut them up for the rest of the class. “YES,” my inner voice rejoiced. ”Thank you, Coach.” Too bad that was his only day to participate with me due to his teaching commitments.
One afternoon sometime in November, one boy complained he could not do yoga because he had a headache. At that moment I realized I also had a headache. It was the interrogation intensity of the fluorescent lighting. The following week I brought in a three-bulb pole lap and turned off the ceiling lights eliminating the glare. That small change also turned down the volume of the voices.
I relented about cell phones in the room when students asked if they could charge their phones -- yes, I said, as long as they remain face down and you do not touch them.
I relented about shoes in the hall. The boys were fearful they would be stolen. OK, I said, but they need to stay next to the wall, my way of avoiding a repeat of the football shoe toss that had happened during one class.
I contacted a yoga mat manufacturer to see if they would donate mats. They would. Thank you Jade Yoga for the dozen mats. . . I added eight more. The boys loved how the rubber yoga mats smelled like a new car when I unpacked them from the shipping box. The mat created a defined space, one they could stay in as ‘their’ place.
At the recommendation of the program co-coordinators, students who continued to be aggressively disruptive were moved to another enrichment program. It was either I redirect them every minute or they go so I could teach yoga to those who could reasonably comply. This decision hurt me as these were the very students who could benefit from yoga.We also reduced the size of the sessions to a maximum of 8 students which also helped.
At times I wished I was a 20 something, six-foot tall, African- American man. Maybe that would solve my “being the other” problem. But I was 65, thin and white . . . I was what they got. “Keep thinking how you make it work, Susan,” became my mantra.
Over time I noticed the students responded well to knowing how the entire session would be sequenced. I began to run the yoga class the same way each day:
1) announce the timetable, detail how long we would do breathing and movement, how long we would do “the hard pose” (relaxation/ savasana), how long we would spend rolling mats and securing the room and when they could dash for the bus.
2) repeat the same poses: mountain, standing warrior series (the boys embraced this with a fierce face and low growl), tree, table pose, flying tiger, plank, locust, balance poses: frog, crow, crane, lying poses: plow, shoulder stand. Most of the boys had incredible balance but poor stamina. Most of the girls would turn each pose into a magazine cover photo opportunity demanding, ‘look at me’.
One day in the boys’ class as we all held plank, I explained the muscles involved and proper alignment. None of the boys could hold the pose for a minute. As I held plank for two then three minutes, I explained why I was able to sustain the pose longer than they could. I heard one boy comment to another, “She looks pretty good for 65.” Another remarked, “Do you mean to tell me if I do yoga, I will be strong like that at 65? My great-grandma is 62 and she can’t even get out of her chair.” I was elated to tell my husband when I got home that afternoon that a 12 year old said I looked pretty good for my age!
After my extended plank I got them to standing and told them to go into tree pose and close their eyes as I counted seconds -- they stayed stone still in tree, eyes closed for over a minute and only came out of the pose because they were bored. Holding a single leg standing balance pose with eyes closed is difficult as it removes one of the ways the brain knows where you are in space, leaving only inner ear and bottom of feet and position of arms and legs. Then I asked them to count seconds as I held tree pose, eyes closed. Eight seconds was my absolute best. They hooted, thrilled they had bested me in tree. I wanted them to see that each of us had strengths and weaknesses. I worked to improve tree with eyes closed, they worked to improve plank.
I was so grateful that my community mentors, men on boys’ day, women on girls’ day, continued to support my efforts to try anything that would help the students focus on yoga. They praised the students when it was deserved and the kids in turn were amazed at how strong all the senior citizens were in yoga. One man attended regularly and the students became comfortable praising him when he did the pose well and also when he invested a lot of effort in his practice.
Some of my high school/ middle school students came weekly, others rotated in and out. One afternoon as five boys settled onto their mats, a talented regular moved into our opening standing poses: Warrior I (one leg back and arms straight up) then flowed into Warrior II (one leg back, shoulders open to the side and arms extended over the legs parallel to the floor). Watching him, I stepped onto a mat and told the students that “K” (the warrior) would be leading the class. K did not blink. He called the alignment cues word for word just as he had heard them come out of my mouth. He directed the students into Warrior III (single leg standing, hinged at the hips arms extended out, body parallel to the floor). The boys followed his instructions and held beautiful Warrior III positions. At this point, I was beaming inside until K’s next cue, “Now lift your heel, hop on one foot and scream like T-rex.” The room erupted as the boys, still balancing in Warrior III began to hop and scream around the room. It looked impossible. I tried it myself. I wobbled around trying to hold my body parallel to the floor and hop and scream.
Just then the a teacher peered into the classroom in time to see the boys trying to hold me in balance as I hopped and hollered. A wide eyed look, head tipped to the side in a “what the hell is going on in here” look came my way. My boys went mute as I stood up, shoved my shoulders back, struck a dignified stance and authoritatively stated that this was dinosaur yoga. The teacher shrugged and disappeared down the hall, we clapped hands over mouths and laughed.
Even though I had had a few minor successes, I could not figure out how to quiet the students long enough for them to lie on their mats and hold a deep and restful relaxation pose. I observed restlessness and horseplay while they were on their backs. My cuing and guided imagery could hold them for two to five minutes but no more.
A light bulb went off the day one of the younger boys rolled onto his stomach and pulled the yoga mat on top of him. Seeing this I told the boys they could choose to lie on their back, side or stomach. They all chose stomach down. After a few heel kicks they would settle. I led 20- to 25- minute guided meditations, beginning with a progressive muscle relaxation, then imagery, then guided them through imagining body system functions at rest. I told them while they rested their bones grew long, the muscles lengthened and their minds grew sharper. Encouraged by this imagery, a shorter, younger boy liked to lie with his arms and legs fully extended, hoping to encourage more growth.
I had one industrious student who appointed himself tour guide of relaxation pose for any student new to the class. He would wait for me to say, “Time for the hardest pose.” When the new student asked why it was the hardest, he would reply, “Because you have to shut your mouth the whole time,” before adding, “Wait for it, wait for it, she can hypnotize you.” Then he would settle into a deeply relaxed pose resting on his stomach, his head on folded hands underneath his chin. When I said it was time to sit up he would boast, “Didn’t I tell you? I was out! I mean OUT!” As he headed out the door one day he announced to the other guys, “I’m going home to take a bath and relax.”
The girls were quite different. Some enjoyed the poses, others wanted to learn to pole dance or lap dance. When these 12-year-old girls asked me if I could teach them to lap dance, I said I could teach them a yoga pose dance instead. In response they suggested they could compose their own yoga dance and bade me to turn my back while they worked on it. I asked who was in charge of the dance team and one girl immediately appointed herself. “OK, you have five minutes and there must be five yoga poses,” I said and turned my back. They were 10 feet from me at most but seemed satisfied I could not see. I heard murmuring and closed-mouthed, hummed music beats. “No, this way, no, this way,” the leader whispered. I sounded a warning saying there was one minute left to go, and they asked for two. “OK, two,” I said. They were focused, busy, imaginative and most of all not on their cell phones or talking about lap dancing, which made the process all the more worthwhile.
When they were ready, two girls came and held my shoulders to turn me around and move me to a certain spot in the room. They opened out to the four corners of the space and began to hum a rhythmic beat. Like gymnasts they strode chest forward and arms swinging into the center of the room. They gracefully moved through the three Warrior poses, holding hands often and humming the beat. They dropped to one knee in a deep lunge, came to the floor seated and turned their backs to the center and stretched out their legs.
“Done!” they announced.
My jaw dropped and I erupted into enthusiastic applause.
“Do you really think it was good?” the leader asked. Emphatically I said “YES” and asked to see it again. This time it was smoother, slower and the hummed beat softer. These were little girls being themselves, inventive and collaborative. I high-fived the grinning and giggling team. This was not a yoga style I had learned nor was it one I taught. My students taught me a new yoga. Once they were finished, it was time for savasana.
I turned the lamp bulbs off so only the soft light from the hallway illuminated my resting yoga dancers, lying on their mats, stomach down. Seated near them in a cross-legged pose, I began the guided body relaxation when suddenly the dance leader got up and plopped herself next to me leaning heavily on my side.
“Can I do this?” she whispered.
“Do what?” I whispered back.
“This thing, the talking part,” she said.
“Sure, go ahead.”
She leaned in closer and asked, “What do I say?”
I looked right into her little face and said, “Use your imagination.”
She looked back and whispered, “I don’t have an imagination.”
I paused to think and tilted my head to her, “Imagine you found a pretty new dress.”
In a tiny, slow voice she said to the room, “Imagine you found a pretty new dress.”
She looked back to me and asked, “Now what?” She wiggled in closer, turning her back to press up on against my side.
I mimed sleeves, sliding one hand down the length of my other arm.
“And it has long sleeves” she said to her quiet team.
She searched my face for the next cue, I mimed a hem.
“And it goes to your ankles.”
She never looked back to me after that. Her shoulders tilted forward and her eyes closed as she continued in a soft, steady voice. “The dress has flowers and you have the perfect matching high heel shoes,” she said. “And when you wear it everyone likes you and you are special. So you wear it to school every day. And no one picks on you or takes your stuff. And you feel beautiful and loved. And everyone thinks you are pretty and wants to be with you”.
A lump formed in my throat as she continued to express her fears and desires through this spontaneous creation.
I looked up to the clock and told her it was time to get everyone up gently and slowly. With my exact words from previous classes she said, “Now gently begin to wiggle through your fingers and toes, and take a slow deep breath in and out.”
“Look!” she said excitedly, sitting tall next to me, “They are doing what I said!”
She had them come to a seated pose and elbowed me to add, “The love and life in me honors and respects the love and life in you.” Each of them quietly looking into my eyes as I looked at each of them in turn.
I sat there, both humbled and over whelmed by what I had just heard, while they rolled up mats and left the room. It was the end of May. Yoga had bumped all the way to the end of the school year bringing me and my students an awareness of yoga in its unending variations.