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Teaching Yoga

Yoga for At-Risk Populations

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A rape survivor who shudders when touched. A male prison inmate with both knees shattered by bullets. A child who slumps since she witnessed domestic violence in her home.

These are the people you’ll serve when teaching yoga to at-risk students, defined as those who’ve suffered trauma.

Since Bo Lozoff founded Durham, North Carolina’s Prison-Ashram Project in 1973, yoga programs for people in crisis have spread across the United States. From classes for inmates at Living Yoga in Portland, Oregon, to classes for veterans at Yogani Studios in Tampa, these programs are thriving—and redefining their instructors’ teaching practices.

Just as offering yoga to at-risk students can pose logistical challenges (tattered mats, nonexistent props, and a half hour of trudging through prison security checkpoints), it can present teaching dilemmas you’ve never faced before.

As the result of trauma, students may have migraines, stomachaches, locked shoulders, or other physical problems. They may lash out—or stare through you as if you didn’t exist. Those left numb may inch through Sun Salutations mechanically. Those who’ve become hypervigilant may race through the sequence three steps ahead of the class.

“When you teach at-risk students, you learn to address physical problems, diffuse anger, and spark interest,” says Leah Kalish, director of the Los Angeles-based Yoga Ed, which trains instructors across the country to work with urban schoolchildren. “You get the lethargic student to feel her body again by rolling on her mat. You ground the anxious student by looking him in the eye and telling him to root his feet into the earth.”

If you know how to teach at-risk students, you can help them regain control over their bodies, minds, and lives. “Yoga calms the nervous system, slows the thoughts, and helps you realize you’re accountable for your actions and have all the answers inside you,” says Shaina Traisman, director of Yoga Behind Bars in Seattle. “When yoga penetrates at-risk students, it gives them the tools to heal from old trauma—and to respond to new challenges in a healthier way.”

How can you prepare for this work? Read Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time. Watch Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, a film about how meditation is lowering recidivism rates in India. Train at Yoga Ed, Yoga Behind Bars, New York’s Lineage Project, or a similar program in your region. Pair up with a mentor or coteacher who has done this work before.

Even if you don’t plan to make this population your niche, you never know when a student suffering from trauma might drop into your regular class. Take note of the following tips from teachers experienced in working with at-risk populations.

Get Grounded

The key to teaching at-risk students is to be a devoted student yourself. “You need to embody what you want to teach,” says Hala Khouri, author of Yoga Ed’s curriculum for at-risk students. Practice asana, pranayama, and meditation daily so you’re calm enough to support those living under extreme stress.

Also come to terms with your own history. “Teaching at-risk students can trigger you, especially if you have unresolved issues around violence or abuse,” says Seane Corn, who is based in Topanga, California, but offers yoga to needy and HIV-positive children in India, Cambodia, and Africa. “You need to address those issues and feel safe working with them so your students can feel safe too.”

Before walking into class, surrender your expectations and check your ego at the door. Focus on bhakti (devotion) and karma yoga (selfless service). “Your intention should be to offer choices, self-awareness, and power to at-risk students,” says Kalish. “It’s about what you’re giving, not what you’re getting back.”

Be Consistent

Establish class rules with input from your students, and gently but firmly maintain them. Show up as scheduled and stick to the same basic format, perhaps doing warm-ups followed by Sun Salutations, backbends, forward bends, inversions, then Savasana (Corpse Pose). “If at-risk students know what’s coming, they can relax in the moment and enjoy the full benefits of yoga,” says Leslie Booker, a New Yorker who teaches prison inmates through the Lineage Project and who has also taught yoga to pregnant teenagers. “Experiencing consistency can help them achieve stability in their own lives.”

Keep It Simple

As you move through the asanas, teach at the basic level. “At-risk students tend to be doing yoga for the first time and to have limited body awareness,” says Traisman. Go slowly and mindfully, helping students establish a pose before attaining its full expression. Keep instructions clear and uncluttered, telling students in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) to “make your feet like the number 11” instead of “keep the outer edges of your feet parallel to the outer edges of the mat.” Your hour-long class may include five poses and 10 minutes of meditation. Consider that an accomplishment.

Adjust Your Adjustments

Safe, supportive touch can help at-risk students recover a sense of safety and trust. But touch can be charged—especially for perpetrators and victims of violence. Talk to class administrators about whether touch is appropriate. Avoid adjustments that could be sexualized (such as pulling a student’s hips back in Downward Dog) or triggering (such as placing the hands on the head, as if you were making an arrest, in Cobra Pose). Have students reach toward you instead of reaching toward them. Offer verbal corrections, and always ask permission before touching.

Be Resilient

“At-risk students may act out and challenge you,” says Kalish. “This is part of their defense—a way of coping that you can’t take personally. Don’t try to fix it, but be nonreactive and mirror their behavior back. If a student is rude, say, ‘Wow, I can see you’re really angry today.’ This acknowledges emotion and creates a safe space to express it.”

Adapt to your students’ needs—and to the unexpected. How will you teach prisoners when they’re being punished and are not allowed to sit on their mats? How will you adapt Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose) for a student who has been stabbed in the hip? How will you remain calm and respond with lovingkindness when a veteran in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) releases grief trapped in his heart chakra and bursts into tears?

Though some at-risk students may burst with sudden emotion, most are more likely to hold back—and to be so reserved that the teacher may wonder if he or she is getting through. “At-risk students usually need to feel things out before they come to trust the yoga teacher or trust yoga practice itself,” says Booker. “But over time, they’ll start asking to work on specific asanas. They’ll tell you how they’ve started sharing yoga with others. They’ll tell you they’re no longer angry or lashing out. They’ll show that they’ve grown excited about this practice—and that yoga has become a nurturing, stabilizing force in their lives.”