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As part of the Practice of Leadership conversation presented by Yoga Journal and lululemon athletica on Friday, September 19th at Yoga Journal LIVE! in Estes Park, CO, we’re profiling trailblazing yogis, teachers, and social justice activists. Follow along on Facebook for more thoughtful and inspiring interviews.
When someone first suggested that Leslie Booker teach yoga and meditation to incarcerated youth, her first response was “no way.” She wasn’t certified, for one, and (at the time) she hated teenagers, for another. But eight years later, she’s still working with The Lineage Project to bring yoga and mindfulness to adolescents who are incarcerated or involved with the court system. She also spent two years on Riker’s Island as part of a research team through New York University facilitating an intervention of Mindfulnesss and Cognitive Behavioral Theory, and has spent time with James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project on San Quentin. We asked how the kids first won her over and what she’s learned along the way.
Yoga Journal: What led you to yoga and meditation?
Leslie Booker: I was in the fashion industry for a very long time and was feeling that I needed to do something bigger with my life. I had dabbled in yoga and realized it was the thing that really made me feel alive. At that point yoga was still very much a physical practice for me, but I knew it was something I needed to explore more. I ended up getting a part-time job at the New York Open Center to help me segue out of fashion, and that’s where I was introduced to a great mentor of mine, Stan Grier. Eventually I got certified and came to work with him at The Lineage Project.
YJ: What was the first class you taught for The Lineage Project?
LB: I jumped right in. I did a weekend training then started my first class that Tuesday. It was at Horizon, a detention center in the South Bronx, where I still teach—eight years later.
YJ: And what was your first class like? Was it what you expected?
LB: I had no idea what to expect. I was shocked that it was like being in an adult jail, like what I saw on TV. There were kids in jumpsuits and big metal doors with huge locks and bars. I thought that when we came in, everyone would get really quiet and the staff would be respectful and we would all do yoga together. That was not the case. It was more like, actually, this is business as usual and you just happen to be in the corner trying to do your thing. I realized pretty quickly, oh, that’s what they mean by showing up and just being with what is present. Got it.
YJ: What skills did you have to develop as a teacher?
LB: I really found that to teach in that environment, I had to go deeper into my Buddhist meditation practice. You’re seeing a lot of suffering through generations of historical trauma and the challenge is to not get caught up in that narrative, in the weight of it, but to face it head on, to empower them to move through it, not around it.
YJ: What kept you coming back?
LB: Immediately I found the kids incredibly endearing. They’re only 12-15 years old. When you step back, you realize, oh, you just want to be a kid. I was really overwhelmed at the beginning, by the environment, by seeing so many of my little brothers and sisters locked up. It’s heartbreaking to see another generation of People of Color starting their lives behind bars and feeling stuck there, like it’s where they’re supposed to be. But I knew that it was something I needed to do. As Van Jones says, “We need to call them up, not call them out.” I needed to go back and try again.
YJ: Do you find that the kids have preconceptions about yoga?
LB: When I first started, about half the kids knew what yoga or meditation was. Now all of them know something about it. A lot of them have had it in their schools or their social workers or therapists have taught them breathing techniques. But there are stereotypes: yoga’s for girls, yoga’s for white people, or you have to be skinny or flexible. There’s a lot of “I can’t do this, because that’s not what we do.” So I always ask them what they think yoga is and then I share with them a way that I think the practice could be beneficial for them; a way that’s realistic for them for where they are in that moment.
YJ: And how do you explain it?
LB: I frame it as a way of being able to recognize your triggers. Kids are very familiar with triggers. It’s something that social workers and therapists talk about a lot: How we can self-regulate to be aware of our triggers so we can make a better decision on how we respond to a situation, instead of reacting. I ask kids if they’re aware of what their triggers are and they say they are, but it’s after the fact. So I ask them, “What would it be like to be able to know your trigger and maybe do something about it before you act, before you get into a situation that lands you in jail or violates your probation?” And all kids want that. They want to be able to self-regulate. They want tools to keep them out of trouble, or to get them back home. So I frame yoga as a way for us to understand our minds, and to understand our bodies so we can make better decisions before we act out.
YJ: Will you tell us about a student or particular moment that really stands out in your memory?
LB: Oh, there are many. When I first started working in the juvenile detention center, there was a young girl named Mariah who had just been to court and found out that her toddler was going to foster care. When I got to class, Mariah was fine, but then someone triggered her over something minimal and she flipped out. She was screaming and none of us knew what was going on. But she came back to the circle and intuitively the other girls encircled her and just let her go through her process. We’d been practicing Ujjayi breath—the sound of the ocean, the sound of a mother’s womb—and very organically, the girls began to all practice it together. It was nothing that was instructed. But this practice is so intuitive. When you show it, when you teach it, when you give them options, it’s so natural for these kids to bring these practices back up in times of need.
YJ: It sounds like the kids, and the practice, continually surprise you.
LB: Yes: We never know how the practice is going to show up. We never know how kids are going to use the practice. I remember someone saying once, “the practice is sort of like a gift—you can put it up on the shelf, you can regift it, or you can use it.” I always tell the kids, “This is for you. You don’t have to use it now, but it’s yours and you can use it whenever you want.”
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