Pairing Yoga + Art for At-Risk Teens

Struggling teens find girl power through art and yoga.

Mary Lynn Fitton wants teenage girls to feel the same kind of freedom that she’s found in yoga. So she’s chosen to teach asana and yoga philosophy to those whose autonomy is curtailed: teens in the juvenile system. In 1998, she started teaching yoga to at-risk girls in East Palo Alto, California, which eventually led her to start the Art of Yoga Project in 2004 at the Lithia Home for Girls, a juvenile justice treatment facility in Ashland, Oregon. She’s since developed a yoga and creative-arts curriculum for detainees, which integrates art as a way for girls to internalize lessons about yoga and themselves. Last year Fitton moved back to California to partner with the Margaret J. Kemp Camp, a juvenile justice facility in San Mateo. Now eight other facilities around the country are adopting her curriculum.

“Yoga strips away the gangsta style,” says Fitton. “We challenge them physically, then we talk about their choices and feelings. Art lets us further explore concepts and teach yoga’s eight limbs.” The girls make a body map, paint self-portraits, create “ad campaigns” for ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), and asteya (nonstealing). As a result of Fitton’s work, thousands have been introduced to yoga, and 250 girls have been through the full program. The yogini artists report feeling safer, and staff notice behavioral improvements.

Formerly a triathlete and ER nurse who exercised, she says, “for all the wrong reasons,” Fitton’s pace hurt her physically and emotionally. “I grew aware of how tragic my self-talk was. Yoga was my way out.” Instead of pursuing a PhD in women’s health, she took teacher training at White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara and started teaching yoga to teens. “Regardless of class, girls struggle with their personal identity,” she says. “Counting calories? Gang activity? It’s misdirected energy that could be potential service, which leads to true happiness.”

Fitton’s hope for the future? “I want every girl to leave with a yoga mat and access to local classes.”

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