Last Chance Dance

I have blogged in the past about my work with Lemonade, A Yoga Program. We provide yoga classes to each unit on SF’s juvenile hall every week. After serving on the board for several years, and having spent multiple days there over the course of the past 18 months, I recently decided to commit to spending one full day each week in the hall teaching yoga.

What does this look like? This looks like a jail. This looks like five classes, with anywhere from 8-20 kids per class, in uniforms, on mats placed about 15-20 feet away from their cells. This looks like depressed youth who have seen unspeakable violence. This also looks like your average group of teenagers – lanky, growing into their bodies, easily distracted, and shockingly vulnerable at times. Most importantly, this looks like a lot of faces that probably didn’t have much of a chance to break the cycle they inherited at birth. For the teachers, this looks like a very long day – with awesome highs when someone makes a breakthrough and disheartening lows when you find yourself feeling just a little bit hopeless: about the chances that these kids have to make a better life, or even survive. 

An empty unit at San Francisco Juvenile Hall. Yoga is done on the carpet or tile of each unit.
But this is where yoga comes in.

Yesterday, during one of our classes, we had a major disruption, and it shook me a little. It didn’t shake my commitment to these kids or our work – but it did shake my spirit in a way that makes me want to give up a little bit on humanity. How broken has life made some of these small souls?

In the midst of this situation, a little levity emerged, and kids that had been distracted were now active participants in class. Many yoga poses look similar to hip-hop dance (as they tell me, hands on hips: this yoga "stuff" is all "hip hop moves"). We were treated to a bit of a dance-off. A student that had complained for most of the class and seemed only slightly interested, was suddenly engaged and interactive as he danced in front of his peers. There were some small signs of a community rallying. And the victory of finishing a class - IN SPITE OF what had happened. A space that didn’t seem safe to them at first – had found a way to heal. 

In retelling the day's story to a friend, she wondered why we hadn’t called someone to help with the disruption. When you are on the maximum-security unit of juvenile hall, you have actually reached the end of the road. It isn't like a school. There isn’t an expulsion process here. 

This is the last chance dance for so many of these kids.

And so you breathe, and you keep going, and you put your hands on your students and you help them find their breath, too. 

You do your yoga. You leave the rest. 

Yes, I left feeling defeated. I took a few hours and practiced yoga with my community, and let it all settle. I took a shower. I turned off my electronics. And slowly, I remembered many other “wins” from my day. I successfully led my first complete class on one of the units (this is more daunting that it sounds), and another one of our teachers had a ton of wins when we were on the girls’ unit. We gave out mats to two staff members for their home practice. Several of the kids recognized me, gave me hugs, and thanked us for our work. 

The whole world looks at these kids and sees the one disruption that happened. Yoga helps me see the bigger picture – the better picture.

These kids are - hands down - the best students that I have ever had. 

My job is not to save them. My job is to teach them. 

My job is to be their dance partner. Even if it is just for an hour.