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Teaching Urban Kids In Under Served Areas Yoga: The Real Shift

Mindful Action

“I feel amazing!” my second grader said at the end of our health and wellness class at an elementary school in the Houston Independent School District.  After I gave her a high 5 and said while catching my last energetic breath, “Awesome!” I told the kids to have an amazing day, shut the door, sat on my mat exhausted physically and mentally to soak up a few minutes of silence before the next class, and said to myself, “Indeed, it’s powerful medicine.”

That’s just a piece of the story.  My other class of fifth graders screams “shut up!” to each other as if they have an automatic shut up repeat button built in their brain with no shut off in sight and to my dismay they broke the “no shut up” speak rule in class, again. So, I’m given another opportunity to guide them the light and love ways of heart speak, not trauma speak.  “Little seeds”, I think to myself.   I’m just planting little seeds.  I’m not growing big oaks without a solid foundation.

Yes, shut up is the proverbial bad word in my book.  And, coincidentally I was speaking with a reverend that works at The Beacon at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston and we were talking about the homeless population he works with at The Beacon.  The Reverend said, “Many haven’t seen their family in years, decades even, but their family never really goes away.”  He was speaking about what I call the “family shadow”.  More about that in just a bit.

I was having this very conversation with the Reverend about many of my kids using the words shut up as second nature and in his words “it isn’t long that shut up turns into mother fucker.”  I am reminded of the Iranian mystic poet Hafiz who said “The words you speak become the house you live in.”  So, for my third and fifth graders, I’m stepping in to be that change, to be a different guide, to illumine a different way, not just a different way to move our bodies, but a different way to speak.

It’s a powerful formula – mindset + behavior shift = constructive change.  The life formula I’m teaching my kids this semester is vision + mindful action = success.  I constantly remind myself that little seeds need a lot of nurturing before healthy new roots can rise up in a new way where real shift happens.  Real shift means we shift from fear into love.

“You have the best job on campus!” said a fellow teacher.  I sure do, but it’s also quite challenging.  There are a lot of complexities to guiding K-5th in the ways of yoga and wellness, but when you add to the mix a population of children that live an underserved and underdeveloped part of the city, and come from very broken families and traumatic experiences, many times a typical class feels like the depths of hell as I hear the deep cries of my kids that desire so much to have an authentic and loving family connection.

That experience and the daily interaction on this heart level, which is in many ways, what we do has health and wellness teachers, is a lot to take in.  It’s taxing, but inspiring.  Sometimes it leaves you feeling so empty, but the next day you are filled with such immense love.  Then there are other times when we feel broken as a collective, and days when we all heal together.  Most of all, even on the hardest of hard days, I walk in feeling more blessed than the day before, not because everything is “Amazing!” as my second grader says, but because I’m living the real shift with the future of our world.  And, it’s an honor to serve.

So, back to the family shadow.  See, a lot of us that come from broken families in 32 flavors and then some unconsciously move far away from our families, either physically or emotionally, but we keep reaching for the success mark and miss over and over for many reasons beyond the scope of this piece.  When the Reverend was talking about the homeless population and how they haven’t seen their families in years, but somehow their families never go away, something crystallized for me in that moment is that we must guide our light and love leaders of the future to not just be agents of change for themselves and the world, but we must guide them to be agents of change in their family.

Our family shadows will always be there with us in the imprint of our biologically and our heart space until we become agents of change in our families and assist the healing process.  Before we speak peace not just as a goal, but as a means of an end as Martin Luther King Jr. said, we must seek peace as a means in the family relations before we seek peace as a means in the world.

In that regard, I will leave you with this from my fifth grade class.  At the end of class we close in our closing trust circle, which is a time where we can say anything and everything about yoga, our lives, our problems, our joys, etc.  The dialogue of this circle was about violence, physical violence and students confiding they committed acts of violence to others, including family members.  Many of the students are extremely desensitized to violence.  Hitting others out of violence is a comical affair, because laughing is better than how scary it feels to show our vulnerability and our deep desire for authentic love and connection. It’s easy to keep the walls up with nervous laughter, than to break them down in blood, sweat, and tears.

My kids just don’t know any better.  They are no better or worse than you or me.  They don’t know another way.  Telling each other to shut up and hit each other is all they know.   Some students were actually intrigued on what to do instead of hitting back if someone hit you.  Their hearts opened just a tiny bit with those questions.  We talked about strength in non-violence and strength in violence.  This is the real shift, right after we move the toxic baggage out of our bodies and minds on the mat, the time in the trust circle, no magic carpets, no rainbows, but walls coming down little by little.

A student too shy or too concerned to share their story in the trust circle came to me after class to share her violent and traumatic story about recent drama happening at home and sought me out for advice on what to do.  She said there was a lot of drama and violence going on at home, physical violence among the adults and she wanted to know what to do.  After guiding her to seek safety for herself first, I told her to use some techniques we’ve been learning in class in her safe space, and wait until the storm has passed with the adults.  Then I said, talk to the adult you feel most connected to, the one that will not harm you with words or hands when they are at their most calm.  Tell them how you feel about the violence.  Teach them something you learned in class, but don’t force it, just suggest it.  Plant a seed.  Be the change and keep breathing mindfully, acting mindfully, and waiting patiently.

“See my dear” I said to her,  and continued “we can’t change people, but we can give them love tools to change themselves.”  My amazing fifth grade student is an agent of change for herself already or she wouldn’t be asking me the questions she’s asking me.  She doesn’t know this yet, but she’s an agent of change for her family.  And, in that dynamic we shall seek peace as a means to an end and make real shift happen in the world.

Om Shanti Om ~ Athea



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