Today I am honored to share a story from one of our dedicated volunteers.
I remember the moment everything changed.
There was a kid in my yoga class at the juvenile detention center that would get pulled out week after week, usually for a sudden “F*ck you motherf*cker! F*ck this shit”, though he would vary it up on occassion. It was like there was a dark and rageful cloud in our little circle of yoga mats on the gym floor in the residential drug and alcohol treatment program.
Without warning, lightning would flash, quickly followed by the clap of thunder of a guard’s hand on his shoulder, roughly hauling him away.
The other kids would wait for it, I would wait for it, all a little uneasy and exposed. I would leave frazzled, reminding myself that I was doing a good thing, maybe one kid one day would get something out of it: a breathing technique they could use when choosing whether or not to get into a fight. Finding relaxtion somewhere trauma was held, gingerly letting it go. Taking a step towards mindfulness, and as a result empathy, compassion, and better choices than what landed them here. But it was mostly a mental exercise.
But this particular class, several months down the road, no outbursts.
No surly laziness in his downward-facing dog when I wasn’t looking. He even volunteered to lead a sun salutation with only a thin veil of angst. Then, a miracle happened. While our closing “Namaste” was still ringing, “good class” echoed from somewhere in the circle. My eyes popped open and I saw the boy looing at me, the storm clouds parted and him shining for the first time. I saw a kid sitting there where a drug-addicted street thug had been, tattoos proving his hardness, scowl separating him from a world that was sure let him down. “I didn’t get pulled out today”. And though most of me was soaring with joy, the teacher in me thought he might not have seen the connection so I responded carefully “Well… you didn’t call me a motherf*cker…”
“Yeah”, he said, “Sorry about that. I was detoxing. I think yoga really helped.”
That changed something in me, and the classes changed too. I stopped feeling like I was “teaching at” them, and started noticing whispers change, of release, of gratitude. We might sometimes have a whole MINUTE of quiet as the kids followed their breaths, scanned their bodies. We developed inside jokes, joyful rituals, patterns of give and take. The kids used the freedom I gave them exploring the needs of their bodies, instead of testing my boundaries. I could see the kids looking forward to class as they lined up with their mats, hear the older kids whisper to the newer ones “yoga’s the bomb, you’ll see”. A kid who had asked his mom to say he couldn’t join in because of religious reasons had her change her mind.
Now, I don’t need a self-administered pep talk before or after.
I don’t feel a constriction in my heart as I buzz in through the four sets of steel doors. I look forward to the practice, the challenge of keeping the kids’ focus; how they love to hear poems by Rumi and Hafez, and take turns on the harmonium as we chant “Om Shanti Om”. I love listening to the kids’ growing mindfulness and they share their needs, their experiences. It’s a highlight of my week.
Though I’d had a fairly consistent meditation practice and off-and-on yoga practice, I started practicing yoga daily when I was 30 and starting to feel the effects of aging. I quickly started enjoying all the physical benefits of the practice, as we all do, but noticed some surprising and unexpected perks as well. One of these was in integrity. I noticed less exaggerating when telling a story, or trying to get around a speeding ticket. Less white lies to get out of an uncomfortable situation. Even less need for advice, as I felt more sure about the best way to proceed in situations that would have flustered me before. It seemed like the less I mentally ran away from unpleasant sensations in my hips in pigeon pose, the more comfortable I was in difficult moments in life. The more I was willing to be honest with myself that my wrists weren’t ready to go into the arm balance, the more I was willing to be honest about who I was as a person during the rest of the day, my needs, my shortcomings.
Yoga teaches that the way we do one thing is the way we do everything.
It’s the best way I know to “practice” being myself, smiling in difficult situations, cultivating grace and mindfulness, and moment-to-moment choosing the path that will serve me best.
As the son of a psychotherapist, a lot of weight was put on working things out by thinking, exploring, talking, journaling. As much effort as I put into these, and as good as I become at noticing my shortcomings, my triggers and habitual reactions, they didn’t seem to go away. I got better at changing what I did when they came up, but they still came up, just like clockwork! When I found yoga, then Kundalini yoga, I was amazed at the letting go that seemed to happen as a by-product of the practices. If past habits of thinking, feeling, and reacting, are like rocks, I used to pick them up, scrutinize them, carry them around for a while to feel their weight, role play with them… Kundalini yoga opens up the dam so that a river bliss can just pick the rocks up and wash them out to sea. Don’t even need to know they were there. The blossoming of our greatest self seems to just happen naturally as a by-product of the practice. Now even my mom, who helped pioneer a very popular method of psychoanalysis, uses more and more yoga-inspired breathwork and movement in her therapy, noticing a quicker change in her clients often with other, unexpected benefits.
Jean-Pierre Parent found a Bhagavad Gita in a park at ten years old and has been studying yoga postures, breathing, chanting, and meditation ever since. JP recalls informally celebrating the interconnectedness of all things since before he can remember. He’s studied many styles of yoga in-depth in the US and India, including Vinyasa, Power, Ashtanaga, Iyengar, Hatha, Kundalini, Nidra (deep relaxation) and Nada (the yoga of sound), achieving his 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Certification through Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, yoga’s birthplace in the Himalayan mountains and a Yoga Alliance International-registered course. JP co-opened Mandala Yoga Studio a few weeks ago at SE 69thand Belmont. He currently teaches a weekly Street Yoga program with with adolescent young men that are struggling with recovery from addiction.