The Urban Yoga Den

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Kids These Days July 15, 2013

Hoodies of all sizes at the 2012 Rally for Trayvon in DC.

Hoodies of all sizes at the 2012 Rally for Trayvon in DC.

It seems that Trayvon Martin is on everyone’s mind today.  Who is on my mind?  Children much closer to me.  And Trayvon.  But mostly, the kids directly around me.

*  *  *

The 1st session of summer music/yoga camp wrapped up last week.

As you may have guessed, when teaching, I tend to gravitate toward the “troubled” kids.  Not the hyper, overly physical, excitable ones – although tough to manage, they tend to socialize well and quickly become accepted through lighthearted eye-rolling and general silliness.  I relate to the ones who have a really hard time socializing comfortably…who isolate, or cling, or hide, or run away, or harm themselves or others…who show signs of some sort of emotional hardship.

Over the past three weeks of camp, one little gal in particular struck a deep chord with me.  For the sake of privacy, I’ll call her “Carol.”  Carol was about 7-years-old; and it was her first time at a summer camp.  She was an enigma to most of the teachers and staff; but to me, Carol was completely familiar.  When she arrived, her favorite (and pretty much only) word was, “NO.”  I took my time with her.  First, I met with her group’s apprentices (aka camp counselors) and recommended boundary setting exercises that would liberate and empower both Carol and them.  Then with Carol, I had one-on-one conversations about her actions, suggested alternate behaviors for navigating challenges and encouraged her to apologize when she made mistakes with fellow campers.  Although a tough cookie, she was willing and earnest.  We worked together, and she tried her best.  Each day was up and down.  Still, Carol made subtle – yet profound – shifts in socialization by the end of three weeks.  For example, some days she stopped clinging to the legs of the apprentices and started interacting with other kids; she decreased her tendency to curl up into a ball and hide her face from the world; she more readily responded to my invitations to talk rather than running away; and she participated more and more in our percussion and yoga classes.

When Carol told me nobody was coming to watch her final performances, I asked if I could be her family.  I cheered her on and we smiled at each other through every song and dance.  At yoga class on the last day of camp, she gleefully joined in with the group’s playfulness and stories, as if she’d been integrated the whole time.  Before leaving for carpool, she hugged me multiple times, looked up at my face and said, “I love you.”  I answered, “I love you, too, Carol.”  And I do.

During this camp session, teachers shared theories and opinions about Carol.  Some were surprised I’d had a positive experience, exhaled with relief when she left and hoped she wouldn’t return.  One peer related to my experience and efforts, and said, “These children who need love are the reason we teach.”  Yes, indeed.  And, for me there are other reasons.

I don’t need to know what’s behind parents’ neglect to show up for a child’s needs.  They could be low-income and busily juggling many jobs; or, wealthy and struggling with emotional trauma.  They could be any race and from any background.  All parents give what they know how to give.  In some cases, what they give is insufficient.  So my approach is to recognize symptoms of neglect and, without assumption, judgment or blame – and more importantly, with compassion for the family as a whole – try to offer the child some tools for thriving despite hardship.  Throughout that process, I show the child that she is loved, no matter what she does, says and is.  I reinforce that her fallible humanness is loveable.  And more importantly, I show the child that they can reach out to community for dependable and healthy support.

Carol is the kind of kid most people give up on.  She is the kind of kid I want to spend more time with. I wish the best for this precious soul.

*  *  *

Kids these days
Grow into adults these days.
Kids these days
Become parents one day.

Kids these days
Are in pain.
Transmuting unaddressed emotions into addictions,
Transferring unaddressed emotions through violent actions –
Toward themselves and others.

Kids these days
Are alone.
Who will guide them through their emotions
Toward tools to thrive beyond hardship?
Are they destined to grow into
Suffering adults and struggling parents?

Kids these days
Break my heart wide open
In the most motivating of ways.
They make me look squarely at myself
And continue my sacred inner work.

I am lucky to work with
Kids these days.

*  *  *

Kids these days – just like Trayvon Martin before he died – are being suspended from school.  They are being sent home from summer camp and asked not to return; they are being publicly scolded by visibly disdainful parents; they are being hit for crying, slapped for saying something out loud, ignored for being troublesome, abandoned for being a burden.

And I’m talking all kids.  From all backgrounds.  Kids very, very close to me.

Which is why today, I’m less concerned with the outcome of a situation that I did not witness, in which I did not know the people involved, and more importantly, over which I have little control.  I am more concerned with taking action right here, right now.  In whatever way I am called to serve.

*  *  *

In June 2012, I was assaulted by a kid in my neighborhood.  I’d met him a few months earlier, in April, after attending DC’s Rally for Trayvon Martin.

The rally was my first “activist” action in many, many years.  I am not comfortable around atmospheres of hostility and/or conflict – either I get triggered and begin to feel hostile, or, I get scared of losing someone/something and shut down.  So when I feel passionately about a cause, I pray, I meditate, I have conversations with trusted friends and I write.  But last April, I was moved to witness the group conscience of those demanding justice.

The energy at the Rally was angry, heavy and serious.  At times hostile and conflicting.  At times peaceful.  And at times inspired by purpose.  I stood for hours in the rain, in the midst of a passionate crowd, right up at the front, near the stream of guest speakers.  I did Pranayama, choosing the cooling Sitali breathing to stay balanced and soothed.  To stay spiritually, intellectually and politically neutral, I prayed for the well-being of all beings.  To stay informed, I listened.  Mostly, I heard messages of anger and blame.

Yet, toward the end of it all, I heard Civil Rights Activist Dick Gregory say, “Meditate.  Meditate that the truth will come out.  The whole truth.”

*  *  *

I’ve been practicing meditation since 1990.  Here is the truth that has emerged from that practice:

If I am feeling anything but peaceful, then I am infusing the world with that unrest.  If I want peace in the world, I must address my own unrest, deeply understand its source, bravely face its story, constructively express its pain and resolutely commit to its healing.  When I understand that my unrest with external situations springs from my internal pain – and when I devote myself to the process of growth – I can contribute to a solution.  I can access the strength of my inner peace, share that peace in service, and consequently, increase the peace in our world.

I try not to personalize politics and current events.  If I am emotionally stirred by something I hear on the news, I take responsibility for my emotions by processing as described above.  I am NOT Trayvon Martin; and I am NOT George Zimmerman.  But I feel deeply for both beings.  And it’s my job to know why, so my responses to their situation are not impulsive, harmful or destructive, but informed, healthy and constructive.

When I meditate, I am reminded that I am just a tiny part of this universe…that beyond the horizon there are infinite mysteries that I know nothing about…that there are far too many unknowns for me to think I know better.  When I meditate, I am reminded to let go, let go, let go.  Or as some might say: Let Go and Let God.

*  *  *

After the Rally, I was waiting for the bus home.  As it pulled closer, I noticed the tight crowd toward the front, and spaciousness toward the back.  I heard why when I boarded.  In the back was a group of eight loud, rowdy kids who I recognized from my neighborhood – the well-known 17th and Euclid households, which have been historically plagued by poverty, crime and general unrest.  But y’know what?  These guys sounded like they were having fun; and after an adult-sized morning of seriousness, I wanted to cut loose.  I joined the kids, who told me that they’d just seen “The Hunger Games,” and proceeded to describe the movie with great detail and excitement (and volume!).

I was delighted to be surrounded by their enthusiasm.  One boy in particular told his parts of the story and answered my questions with such earnestness and engagement.  We all said goodbye after getting off the bus in our neighborhood.  From then forward, whenever I saw the group on the streets (they have a daily ritual of heading to McDonald’s at around 6pm), I’d say hi, ask if they’d seen any movies and generally check in.  This is how I became congenial with “Joseph” – the kid who, later that spring, would assault me.

It was 6pm on a sunny Saturday eve.  On the way back from the grocery store, I came across the 17th and Euclid crew.  As I veered toward them to say hello, Joseph jumped in front of me, shoved me, and then ran behind the bus stop.  I demanded an apology.  After some back and forth, Joseph apologized and told me he didn’t realize it was me.  He was in a blind rage about something that had happened that morning.  I was sure to validate his anger; and then we talked about alternatives to violence.

Since then, Joseph and I have run into each other multiple times; we high-five when we pass; and I’ve had the opportunity to intervene when he was striking out toward others, simply by talking about the situation.

This is all it takes with kids these days.  Spending time and sharing solutions.  Ah – and caring to do so.

*  *  *

If you’ve read my blog over the years, you know that, as a child, I experienced things that were so emotionally scarring, I spent years and years misguidedly attempting to mask and make up for that pain with alcohol, drugs and violence.  Finally, decades later I would be compelled to uncover, face and address that wound – or die.  The fact is: addiction is a killer.  And in my 30s, I was on my way down the hole – until a moment of clarity led me to seek help for my habits, and therefore, discover the support and strength to heal and grow.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a moment of clarity and steer themselves toward solutions.  And I truly consider it simple luck – not Karma, grace, privilege, intelligence nor entitlement – that I found my way to solutions for healing and growth.  I have seen people from all backgrounds recover from addiction, transform away from violence and heal emotional trauma; and, I have seen people from all backgrounds gradually kill themselves while harming others.

My hope is to share my experience, strength and hope with youth – whether through yoga camp or street encounters – long before their childhood scars lead them down an unfortunate path toward violence, addiction or the subtle smothering of their spirits and souls.

*  *  *

This week we return for our 2nd session of summer camp!  And together, the “difficult” campers and I will work on our humanness.  I don’t care how much time and energy it takes to give a child the attention and tools she needs to thrive.  Because that is the reason I teach our kids these days

Ahimsa Now.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

*  *  *


– Compassion for Killers, Revisited (Dec. 2012)

– A Warm & Fuzzy Feeling (Nov. 2012)

– Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention (Series: April – July 2012)

– Peace Tools: Infinite Compassion (June 2012)

– Haiku for George Zimmerman (April 2012)

– Peaceful Warrior (April 2012)

– Haiku for Trayvon Martin (March 2012)

– Healing Kids’ Scars With Yoga (July 2011)

– The Yoga of Being Mugged (June 2011)


Healing Kids’ Scars With Yoga July 12, 2011

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC – Potomac, MD to be exact.

Potomac was once known as “The Beverly Hills of the East Coast.”  The town was quite wealthy and had its own brand of celebrities – diplomats, politicians, famous doctors.  Yet there were some plain-old middle class neighborhoods, as well.  That’s where we lived.

I am the youngest of four daughters and was unplanned.  In fact, after the birth of her 3rd girl, my mom had a tubal ligation (aka “had her tubes tied”)…and then I was conceived.  So there’s about 0.02% chance for me to be writing this today.  Yet here I am.

My family members struggled with addiction and endured all that comes with it – violence, chaos, depression, alienation, economic insecurity.  As a young child, I once overheard my parents fighting about family finances.  They said that if I were never born, they wouldn’t have money problems.

This scar has motivated pretty much all of my life patterns (known in yoga as Samskara) – particularly the unhealthy ones.

Believing that I was an unwanted problem, I grew up with a pretty fierce habit of self-destruction.  I’ll spare you the squirmy details of how I used to harm myself and act out.  Due to the amount of pain throughout my entire family, however, there was little attention to or solution for mine.

Once a spiritually inspired, congenial and loving child, I turned into a self-reliant, isolated and troubled teen.  Without the necessary interventions for healing and true growth, I continued my toxic development into adulthood.  No relationship tools, no career path, no future plans.  To be rigorously honest – I spent most of my life either wanting to or trying to die in one way or another.

In my late 20’s, I started to long for inner peace, social connection and maturity.  After finally hitting a spiritual, psychological and physical bottom in 2002, I embraced the right combination of help and have been growing up ever since.

In 2008, I received my yoga teaching certification after 15 years of practice.  My 1st job was designing a yoga program for at-risk youth in a DC public charter school for grades K-7.  The kids were literally climbing the walls.  I once had to yank some down from scaling the hallways by way of door frames.  You might imagine how they initially responded to the yoga program – and to me.  They saw me as a privileged outsider and offered no respect.  To shrink the great divide, I frankly told them about my childhood and consequent adult challenges.  Jaws dropped.  I told them, “If only I’d had the opportunity to escape the chaos inside my classroom, my home and my head to breath, stretch and meditate for one class period, I might have grown up differently.”  Although not all attitudes shifted, a few students opened their minds and hearts and practiced with commitment.  And I enjoyed the incredible honor of witnessing human transformation.

I relate to a great number of inner city kids – we share that core wound of being told in one way or another that we are an unwanted problem.  This brokenness manifests in a variety of destructive behaviors and outcomes.  It fills the streets, supermarkets, buses and trains as urban children endure public shaming and beatings.

In the suburbs, this brokenness and abuse exists behind closed doors.

Like many “do-gooders” I used to focus on working with inner-city populations.  These days I gravitate toward suburban upstarts like me.  Each July and August I teach yoga and percussion to grades 1-6 for a prestigious music school’s summer camp, just four miles from the house where I grew up.  There is a mix of well-adjusted children, kids going through typical growing pains, and others who resemble my own childhood patterns of fear, depression, anxiety, shame, isolation, distraction and destruction.  It is at once heartbreaking and motivating.

I am devoted to the transformational power of ensemble percussion and yoga.  I discovered these amazing practices in adulthood and feel grateful to pass-on their benefits to these summer camp kids.  While learning folkloric Caribbean poly-rhythms, campers open up to team work and trust.  I see the loners gradually shine with talent, the divas turn into helpful guides and the trouble makers take leadership roles.  In yoga class, spazzy and often hyperactive energy transmutes into meditative calm.  Kids who already love and practice yoga (there are more each year) champion the practice; and the troubled ones get a welcome respite from their internal unrest.  In both percussion and yoga class, all are empowered by collaboration and rejuvenation.

I rarely turn yoga into a game for my youth classes (except for the really little guys).  We start class with calming three-part breathing; we set an intention/Sankalpa (typically I ask them to think of something beautiful and breathe it into their hearts); we flow through Sun Salutations/Surya Namaskar; and we practice additional poses depending on the energy of the students.  I have led Pratyahara meditations to balance out the senses and decrease distraction; I have read stories of Hindu deities to much delight; and I have introduced breathing exercises/Pranayama (three-part Deergha Swasam calms them immediately; over-the-tongue Sitali cools hot tempers; belly-pumping Kapalabhati wakes them up when lethargic).

Basically, whatever I teach in my adult classes, I also teach in my kids classes.  Below are a few stories of transformation.  I credit yoga for these stories; I’m simply sharing what centuries of teachers have passed on to each other.

Story #1.  Erik, 11-years-old.

During my time at the DC public charter school, I had an 11-year-old student named Erik.  He was one of those kids I had to peel down from high climbs.  When we started group yoga sessions in January he couldn’t follow directions, stay on his mat or concentrate for a second.  He was constantly looking around, hyper-vigilant and completely distracted.  With good reason – his home life was chaotic and violent.  So I recognized his acting out from my own youth.  After three months of weekly yoga, Erik became more eager to participate in yoga, and was able to concentrate most of the time.  On Friday, March 20th, we decided he would assistant-teach our first class upon returning from Spring Break.  Tragically, Erik and his family were murdered by his mother’s boyfriend the next day.

Erik’s destiny was way beyond my control.  It is bittersweet to recall his transformation through yoga’s gifts; I still access this inspiration and hope when teaching yoga to other youth.

Story #2.  Alyson, 10-years-old.

Another student from that Charter School is still a “private client” today.  Back in Spring 2009, “Alyson” awakened after I’d told the kids my life story.  She bee-lined directly to me and said, “You know how you said that yoga helps you heal emotional pain?  Can I do more yoga with you?”  How honest and revealing!  Alyson excelled in all of her school activities and seemed pretty mature; yet, she frequently set herself apart from classmates.  I soon learned that Alyson’s parents were in serious trouble and she was being raised by her grandparents, who encouraged her to do well.  I was happy that she had support; at the same time, I wondered how it felt to lose one’s parents and end up with another family member.  Since the end of that school year, Alyson’s grandmother has brought her to my home about four times a year for a seasonal yoga “tune-up,” during which we catch up on her latest challenges, and practice a yoga set designed to address those stresses.

Over time, I have witnessed Alyson develop into a graceful young woman and tool-using yogini!

Story #3.  Billy.  11-years-old.

Just last Friday, “Billy” freaked out during Games Day at summer camp.  Billy is a super-smart, overly-eager, talkative camper.  More than others, he needs to be heard, he needs to be recognized as doing well – and he tends to dominate and monopolize the class because of these needs.  Last week, in the Bean Bag Toss, he just could not hit the target.  With each miss, his exclamations became more and more dramatic, and included remarks of great self-disgust.  On his third try (and miss) he yelled “F***!” and stomped off to hide behind some bushes.  “Whoa,” I intervened.  “Let’s take a walk.”  During our stroll, I listened.  Billy was angry because he’d forgotten his water bottle; and he was feeling like he couldn’t do anything right.

He was over-heated, over-sensitive and losing it.  I totally related!

While we headed inside for water, I took yoga’s Pratipaksha Bhavana approach and encouraged him to replace his negativity about Games Day with positive thoughts about his many musical accomplishments.  In fact, I reminded Billy, I’d just paid him a huge complement in front of the entire class that very morning.  He embraced this immediately, saying, “You’re right; this is just one thing,” referring to the bean bags.  Then, on the way back outside, we practiced Sitali Pranayama (inhaling through the mouth and over the tongue; exhaling through the nose) to cool his temper.  It worked.  Billy happily joined the campers and jumped right into the next game.

I wouldn’t dare guess whether these children are/were hurting the same way I did at their age.  However, I vividly recall killing my emotional pain with alcohol at age 11.  So, I can’t help but wonder – what if I’d been exposed to yoga in childhood, instead of finally discovering it (and other healing resources) in adult life?

In the inner city and the outer suburbs, I teach yoga so any child who feels like an unwanted problem might find refuge in and strength through these ancient practices for stilling the mind.  “Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah,” I tell them.  Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I pray that these generously healing practices might liberate all hurting children from the pain of family or community chaos before their Samskara mirror mine.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.