I teach yoga each week to a group of suicidal teens who reside at a local youth shelter. The opportunity always leaves me with a sense of satisfaction and happiness; I feel an absolute glow afterwards. My job is to facilitate an experience for these tender youth to know that they have their very own inner reservoir of peace. I do this by teaching an hour long yoga class, inviting them to move and breathe and coordinate their bodies into healthy shapes. We end in Savasana, the quintessential yoga pose for relaxation. What joy it is to observe them have this experience:
Six teenagers are lying at rest on their back. Savasana is the pose…. legs slightly apart, feet spilling outwards, arms spaced out from their sides with palms of their hands revealed and empty. Their faces are perfectly still, pointing skyward. Eyebags cover their eyes and offer release, a retreat from visual stimulation. Heart -shaped sand bags rest on their bellies. I observe them breathe: gentle, sublime movements come and go to their diaphragms. They are poised for surrender, and surrender they do. Their soft breaths show me they are letting go. As the minutes go by, I imagine that all their emotional disturbances and bodily agitations dissipate. Tranquility becomes almost palpable to the afternoon air. I am comforted from the sense of space and peace in this moment.
These are distraught and endangered teenagers (most have been hospitalized for attempted suicide) who come to find safe, secure respite and rehabilitate from their fragile environments. Yoga is a twice-weekly activity for these youths and is part of a comprehensive program that supports positive life changes and reunification with family. The shelter provides a highly structured routine encompassing many aspects of healthy living.
The program and staff support our yoga time together– they have the furniture cleared for yoga practice, set the mats up, and, with encouragement, require the residents to participate. Oftentimes an intern or staff member will participate with the residents in the yoga class. These facts are important because the structured context and supportive staff set up the foundation for holding a meaningful yoga class every week.
Six years ago, I began offering classes once a week in the early afternoon. So powerful were the after-effects of yoga in the teens that staff members remarked on the calm that followed into the late afternoon, evening, and bedtime. Yoga was referred to as a great anger management tool. Residents who initially resisted yoga would tell the therapists how much they liked it. The staff responded and scheduled a second class per week along with an occasional Saturday class. When their time at the shelter ends (after four to six weeks), many teens make a plan for integrating yoga into their lives.
While I teach a different sequence of poses each week, ending in Savasana is a ritual. Savasana is the all-important pose of letting go, the culmination for release that defines true relaxation. If relaxation is the antidote to stress, then Savasana is a pose everyone should do on a regular basis. These teens seem particularly attuned to its benefits and literally beg for getting into it every week. My experience is that teenagers in any environment crave its offering: a chance to rest without being judged, a reprieve from daily pressures, and an escape from self-comparison.
Sometimes I wonder why I am so touched by this time in Savasana of our weekly yoga class at the shelter. Gandhi put it this way: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” My own yoga practice connects me to immense grace and I’m always restored to gratitude and contentment. Inviting others, particularly young people with a history of self-destruction, to know such grace leaves me supremely satisfied. Perhaps they are receiving peace, tranquility is touching their souls, and their sorrows are fading. Perhaps they are receiving a burning flame of hope for life and the potential it holds.
Christy Brock is founder of YogaMinded and Yoga 4 Teens, and author of the book, Yoga 4 Teens: An Instructor's Guide to Teaching Yoga To Teenagers. Her Yoga 4 Teens teacher training, will be hosted by ChildLight Yoga in the Boston area on November 6 & 7, 2010.
Visit her blog at http://yogaminded.com/blog/ for more great articles on sharing yoga with teenagers.