accident prone

What happens when some of New York City's toughest teens start doing yoga?

"This is bullshit," says Michael, a fifteen-year-old boy who is at my class for the first time. We have just finished twenty minutes of yoga and are now sitting down for meditation. I'm in the middle of one of the eight meditation and yoga classes I teach each week for incarcerated teens in New York City Juvenile Halls. These juvenile facilities are located in the poorest neighbourhoods of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. The youth are primarily fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds from the inner city who have lived very dangerous lives: they have been shot at, chased by the cops and in numerous fights. At a very young age, they have often both endured and caused great amounts of suffering. Some of them are members of the Bloods, Crips or similar gangs. Sometimes kids get involved because the gangs control the drug business in the inner city and this is how the youth make money. Other kids join for protection, saying it is unsafe not to have a gang affiliation.

I've been interested in working with teens ever since I went through the passage myself some years ago. Depressed and lonely as a teenager, my father often left books outside my door that he thought I should read. These books were usually on sexuality or spiritual practice – maybe the two most difficult subjects for children and parents to discuss. Growing up as one of the few non-churchgoers in the Bible Belt of West Texas, my parents wanted to introduce my siblings and me to a number of different traditions. My mom was a yoga practitioner and later a yoga teacher. My father was a psychologist with an interest in meditation. I began meditation and yoga from a young age, though I mainly did the practices by myself in my room and tried to keep it from my parents. Heaven forbid they find out that I was taking some of their advice!

About ten years later, there came a point in my practice when I felt a strong desire to offer these practices to youth. If it helped me, I thought, surely it could help other young people. I had a few friends who were meditators and had been incarcerated as teenagers, so we decided to begin the experiment at the local juvenile hall where they were once incarcerated. After several years working at facilities in the San Francisco Bay area, I moved to New York City a little over a year ago to begin programs for youth in one of America's toughest cities. The nonprofit group I direct is called the Lineage Project East. We offer classes that consist of meditations, such as mindfulness of breathing and listening to Tibetan bells; simple and easy yoga stretches that help them gently contact and move their bodies; teaching stories and dharma topics; along with a discussion period. Everything the Lineage Project offers in the classes is in the spirit of supporting more awareness or mindfulness, encouraging in the youth a sense of curiosity and exploration.

Classes over the last year have become easier as more and more kids have become accustomed to our programs. The kids who end up in juvenile hall come in with enormous confusion and emotional pain. They desperately want help but are extremely suspicious of everybody. Whenever I start a new class, there is usually a "feel out" stage. This involves the kids insulting both the practices and me, then watching how I respond. "You ever been told you look like that guy from Ghostbusters, Egon. Nah, you look like Slinky man. This meditation stuff is dumb. People really like to do this? I can't believe how stupid this stuff is." Sometimes these comments express legitimate doubt about the class, but mainly they are putting me through an initiation. Can I be insulted? How do I respond when the practices I hold dearly are criticized? Their central question seems to be, "Do I care about them more than I care about them doing meditation and yoga?"

With Michael, the kid who thinks this is bullshit, I tell him that I'm not here to fix or lecture him, but that I will explore with him ways to improve the situation he is in. "We will be doing some practices," I explain. "If they are not useful, then forget about them. Don't take my word for it. See for yourself if they have any benefit. But if you never try something, you'll never know." He looks at me with a little more interest, but like most of the kids in this facility, he struggles with enormous pain – of friends killed in gang violence, parents in prison, extreme poverty, few vocational choices that offer any future, and a neighbourhood plagued by violence. They wonder if they start opening to this pain, where will it end? Is it even worth it?

All the so-called "troublemakers" in the city end up in one of three juvenile centres. The juvenile centres are large buildings that hold about 125 youth each, and are often the newest and most expensive buildings in the entire neighbourhood. Security at the facilities is very tight, and all visitors are searched and put through a metal detector. The kids all wear large beige jumpers and have to ask to do anything, even go to the bathroom. They walk in single-file lines through the halls, and must count off as they enter and leave any room. Most of them have court dates coming up, where a judge will decide if they should go home, be sent to a group home, sent back to juvenile hall, or sent "upstate" to do several years' time. Some of the youth here are innocent, picked up because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other kids are incarcerated for continuously skipping school, or for robbery, or murder. Several youth I see each week are there for murders they committed at fourteen or fifteen years of age.

In many ways, the benefits of meditation and yoga for this population are clear. Many have learned no other way of dealing with stress than to act out in anger or seek "relief" through illicit drugs. While incarcerated, they are under enormous pressure from the system and other kids inside. Many kids are here for small nonviolent crimes, but become angrier and more violent while they are in the facility. They also spend a good amount of time by themselves in their rooms, when it is just them and their minds.

Contemplative practices give them another way of working with the stress they feel, and maybe more importantly, a tool for looking into their mind and heart to see if there is not an inner strength that is present, even amidst the great external turmoil. Almost weekly, I'll have a new kid in class look at me surprised after a meditation and say, "Wow. I felt high." Or after yoga they might say, "I've never felt like this before." I then talk about the power to be both relaxed and alert in any situation. Many of them have felt this while playing basketball or other sports. They know what it is like to be in the "flow" or "the zone." When I introduce contemplative practices to them, I tell them that in some ways this is something that they already do. "What is the difference between 'chilling' and meditation?" I sometimes ask. Rather than introduce yoga and meditation as something new and strange, maybe it can be a more formal way of helping them do what they already do. I ask them, "What is the opposite of chill?" Most of the kids respond with the word "hyped." As best I can make out, it means to be anxious and stressed. I then ask, "Would people rather be chill or hyped?" Everyone agrees that people would rather be chill. So this is our common ground, our common denominator – no matter our age or skin colour. How can we help each other reach this goal? And how do we live in a way that creates less pain, both for ourselves and others?

With Michael, I know that if I try to convince him that what I have to offer is useful, I'll get nowhere. There is something else he wants to know – about life, about meaning, about love. He wants to know whether it is worth it to believe in anything. This is not something I can convince him of in words, only in the way I carry myself and relate to him. As my teacher used to say, "You can't really know the truth, you can only be it." It is this being or living the truth that the youth look for; the words you use are secondary.

How I relate to the guard as I enter the centre is as important as whatever I say in the class. The same is true with how I relate to the other staff and to the kids who are not into the practices. A number of months ago a kid named Jamal used to come to my class every week. Although he showed up each week, he never really tried to do the yoga, and during the meditation, he would keep his eyes open and look around like he was bored. However, after the class, he always gave me a big hug and said thank you. I later learned that he was on trial for a gang-related murder. I started to get frustrated with Jamal because I thought, "Why keep coming to this class if you are not interested in the meditation or yoga? What's your problem?" It then hit me one day: he didn't come to the class for meditation or yoga; he came for a hug. He did not have the problem. I did. It might be the only hug he got all week. If he was not being disruptive, why not let him come to the class for a hug? I began to see how limited my views were of how love should be expressed. Gradually, Jamal was able to close his eyes for a short time during the meditation, and he seemed a little more engaged in the yoga. But if my devotion was strictly on youth doing meditation or yoga, I would have given up on Jamal a long time ago. I began to see how I could use anything, even meditation or yoga, as another thing for the kids to feel hard on themselves about instead of an expression of care and compassion for themselves. While certain guidelines need to be followed in class and I sometimes ask disruptive youth to leave, they need to feel a genuine care from me or nothing is going to work. If my care and devotion is not on them as people, then I'm just one other person with an agenda for them, one other person trying to fix them, and they want no part of it.

As someone who went through a great deal of pain as a teen, I remember that first moment when the world seemed to get bigger, when something opened. I certainly still had pain and difficulty, but something else emerged. While I cannot magically wave a wand and make everything better for these youth, I can help create an environment where the possibility of opening and healing is ever so slightly more possible. As a wise person once said, "Enlightenment is an accident; we practise to become accident prone."

Michael has since come back to a number of classes and has become one of the most engaged and curious students. The other day I asked him why he gave me such a hard time that first class. He looked at me, and then dropped his head a little. "I had just gotten some bad news that day," he said, "and I just wanted to give someone a hard time. Sorry." I then realized that I often have no idea what the kids may be going through when they give me a hard time. Yet no matter what is happening, I create a space that does not attempt to force change or growth, but makes room for it to happen. This is a space that allows everyone to be just as they are – tough, afraid, happy, angry. Though the scene may look a little strange from the outside – a tall, skinny white guy who grew up in the plains of West Texas sitting in a circle of young kids of colour, mainly from the inner cities of New York Cityt – here is a desire for happiness and well-being that we share. Our hearts speak the same language. So my job is not to save or to change people, but to help provide a space where compassion and wisdom have a slightly better chance of sneaking into all of our lives.

Soren Gordhamer is author of Meetings with Mentors and the forthcoming meditation book for teens, Just Say Om! (Adams Media, 2001). He is the director of Lineage Project East ( and lives in the New York City area.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life