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Taking it to the Streets: How to Bring Yoga to At-Risk Youth

in For Teachers, YD News

by Lauren Tepper

In the isolated safety bubble of a pristine yoga studio, odes to Ganesha humming from the ipod dock…has it ever popped into your head to examine how you came to be here, and what life is like on the ‘wrong side of the mat?’ I’m guessing that it has, and that, like me, you yearn to share this transformative practice with others whose life situations make them unlikely to stumble upon it.

Thanks to the generosity of Street Yoga, YogaDork and a few other angels, I had the opportunity to develop my ability to do this at Street Yoga Teacher Training the first weekend in August at Bija Yoga. The 14-hour training (approved for CEU’s through Yoga Alliance and the National Association for Social Workers) promised tools and techniques for working with at-risk youth, including those who are homeless, in foster care, detention, shelters, and recovery programs. It delivered this, and so much more.

“Stand strong,” said Street Yoga’s Lead Trainer and Founder Mark Lilly as he opened our weekend together with a centering and grounding yoga sequence. Mark intertwined two themes throughout the workshop: the importance of caring for ourselves with as much love and healing intention as we want to bring to others; and practical strategies for working with at-risk populations. “Our loving presence is the gift,” he offered.  “What’s most important is that you show up, holding a space for courage and honesty.”

It’s invigorating to be around someone who really walks their talk. Mark’s leadership was compassionate, informative, and down-to-earth. Our classroom immediately became a sangha where I felt profoundly supported as I went through the emotional ups and downs of looking at my own coping mechanisms while investigating how to serve those who live with daily chronic or extreme trauma.

Mark referenced Marshall Rosenberg’s method of Nonviolent Communication to set the stage for assessing the needs of our group. Are they completely checked out; utterly exhausted; unable to focus; bouncing off the walls with energy? He shared strategies to make breathing, movement, and meditation techniques accessible to the wide range of people we are likely to encounter.

We brainstormed ways to meet the challenges of working with vulnerable and traumatized youth, and role played teaching yoga in various situations, i.e. a drop-in program for homeless youth or pregnant teenagers in transitional housing.  We talked about arrival and preparation for teaching, modifications for poses in special situations, suggestions for starting or teaming up with programs to bring yoga and meditation to underserved populations, and much more. To top it off, we took home an extensive manual with a wealth of additional resources, including sample curricula, yoga games, and interviews with Street Yoga teachers.

Mark gave us tips for finding the right teaching situation, and encouraged us to wait until we felt ready. He also advised us to build a support system, rather than trying to ‘go it alone.’

Street Yoga

It struck me throughout the weekend how applicable all this was to teaching yoga in any environment, and even to just plain living. It dawned on me that most people face trauma in their lives on some level, whether it’s acute like a physical abuse or the chronic strain of living in a violent culture. On my way to Sunday’s session, I found myself looking at people on the train and in the park with a deeper sensitivity, and more compassion.

This workshop revealed a lot to me about my own patterns of coping (or not!) with the stresses of daily life. I gained insights to help me “stand strong” in my personal journey, and left feeling better prepared to help others do the same without depleting my own inner resources.

For more info about Street Yoga check out their website, facebook, twitter @streetyoga

Lauren Tepper is a yoga and dance instructor, peace activist, personal trainer, environmental educator, and freelance writer. She is also a trained facilitator of spiritual circle gatherings through the Institute for Circlework, and she leadsworkshops uniting ritual, movement, meditation, and celebration of life’s natural cycles and seasons. Her blog offers insights and techniques for bringing more mindfulness, joy, and relaxation into daily life. www.breathtakingspace.com

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6 comments… add one

  • THANK YOU!!! I work in the child welfare arena, and I work with many, many at-risk youth. I often think about different ways to bring them yoga. Them and their parents actually. One of my biggest dreams is to bring yoga to these kids and their families, to help them see another world, a world without drugs, violence, and fear. A world of community, love, and humanity. I appreciate you sharing this, and I hope it can be brought to more people everywhere. Namaste!

  • Lauren

    Dear Rebecca,

    It is really a beautiful thing to bring these practices to people who most need them. If you have the time (ha! who has time nowadays… but anyway…) I encourage you to take this training – it will help show you how. You don’t need to be a yoga teacher to learn how to do something like this, and to network with others who can help bring these practices to the kids you work with. All best… Lauren

  • I think the main thing is to just start. You probably know a fair bit already from your practice, and giving people 3-5 minute tools can be an immense thing.

    One of my students is also working in this arena, and she’s been teaching breathing and movement from yoga to youth, their families, and her fellow coworkers for the past 6 months or more. She’s only been practicing for 9.

    So, don’t let not-being-trained hold you back, go ahead and share until you get the training, which will give you more tools once you do it. :)

    Go-go-go! You can do it. :)

  • Ironically, I am a yoga teacher. The issue has more to do with ethics because I already work with the kids and their families in another capacity. My bigger goal is to mobilize the yoga community here to teach these kids. I would love to do the training. Please bring it to Arizona!

  • Lauren, thank you so much for your insight and beautiful ability to translate your experience at this training.

    Rebecca, I am so delighted to reach you in this way! We will welcome you with open arms. We visited Tucson in 2011… sounds like we are overdue another visit to your state!

    Jenifer is right, the best way to share yoga is just to start. We live in our own truth and show how that changes or elevates who we truly are in the world. That is how our founder, Mark Lilly began. He experienced his first yoga class and knew he had to share it with the kids he worked with at Outside In, a day program providing food, medical help, counseling, and many other services to kids sleeping on the streets at night.

    What I love about Lauren’s reflections is the emphasis on the community that our training builds. We can’t do this alone, and in fact, what yoga asks of us, is to connect. To share. To challenge ourselves, not just to feel empathy for others, but to actually feel what others are feeling. To care and behave as if another’s burden was our own. Then we are truly able to bear the weight of the world and elevate consciousness!

  • Chris

    In India, Baba Ramdev, tours the country year-round, and conducts week-long open-air Yoga-clinics at various places in India. Of course, these Yoga-clinics are ABSOLUTELY free of charge.

    Huge crowds of people turn up his open-air Yoga-clinics, many of these people being absolute newbies to Yoga. At each of these Yoga-clinics, Baba Ramdev extracts from his audience their promises to give up their addictions (smoking, drinking, chewing-tobacco, etc.) cold-turkey. Thousands in the audience pledge to give up their addictions cold-turkey.

    It all seems to work too, because large numbers of people come out of these Yoga-clinics, totally and miraculously free from their various addictions.

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