soft armour

Youth at risk learn to protect themselves from within

"There are only two rules," I say. "Take off your shoes when you come in, and stop talking." The students simultaneously roll their eyeballs and unroll their mats.

"There has to be respect in this class, and it needs to be mutual. Basically if you guys are cool with me, then I'll be cool with you." This is my typical opening line; I figure that if I can meet the kids first on their level, in their language, then I at least stand half a chance at developing a relationship with them. I teach yoga to youth at risk in Montréal's outreach high schools, last-chance schools for marginalized students facing serious obstacles. The kids range from thirteen to eighteen years old, and are in very challenging social, economic and emotional circumstances. It is for this reason that they are coined "at risk" - at risk of dropping out of school, of further plummeting into negative predicaments.

After a few rounds of chanting Om, the initial tidal wave of skepticism morphs into a sea of stillness and I begin to see fists unfurling, shoulders softening and jaws unclenching. I ask the kids to stand in Tadasana and encourage them to feel connected to their mountain, via their breath and strength. Later we go around in a circle, doing self-introductions. In this group of eight students, one has lived in foster care for nine years, another just got out of rehab, and four have been kicked out of at least two other schools. They are the toughest group I have.

A Hatha-Vinyasa class is hardly a physical and mental battle, but for these students, accessing their bodies and minds may very well be. I have been working with the metaphor of soft armour in my classes with them, a soft and self-created protection and exploration mechanism, able to initiate change on all levels. Most of the students carry around full artillery under their clothes, protection from the hurt buried deep inside. On some days, this hardness seems like one-way glass windows, hollowed-out shells of young bodies.


I'm now twenty-seven, but I can relate to how my students feel. I started taking yoga at fifteen, and my first classes were both exhilarating and frightening. In retrospect, I see how crucial those classes were in helping me to develop a healthy relationship with my mind and body. I came to this work because of my own experiences, and the fact that pressures on youth are not letting up. Broken homes, suicide attempts, constant knocks to their self-esteem, plus overwhelming social, familial and academic pressure make them easy prey to drugs, alcohol and violence as vices to release their stress.

The urgent need for this work was clear from the outset. When I contacted some Montréal high schools about the possibility of including yoga classes in their curriculum, most schools responded with the same combination of enthusiasm and "anything that will work" desperation. "Hi. My name is Jacky. I have created a yoga program for youth," I would begin, only to be sharply cut off. "Yeah, okay," the school official would typically respond. "So when can you start?"

After nearly dying in a landslide in northern Laos last fall,

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