Through The Looking Glass
By Cator Shachoy

Do you remember Junior High? The highs and lows of each day, each hour, each minute. The insecurities and embarassments.  Oh, the drama of the newly evolving self!  I suspect most of us were not at all sure we would survive.  Would you have taken a yoga class then?  Would you have liked it??  Several years ago I took on the task of teaching yoga to the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades at a public junior high school in San Francisco.  It proved to be both a lot of fun, and a challenge which caused me to grow and stretch myself in more ways than just the yoga postures.  Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would never have done this….but the unknowing is the cause of many a great adventure!

I had lots of ideas about why I wanted to work with this age group.  The early teen years are a time of so much internal growth and change.  It is a time when social and societal pressures are beginning to mount.  Everyone has their own ideas about who this teenage person should become—parents, teachers, coaches, peers….but is anyone asking the teen who they wish to be?   The individual sense of self is still fragile at this age.  The ‘self concept’ has only just begun to form.  The conflicting views of what is right and wrong cause unconscious decisions to be made.  Decisions about whether to follow one's heart, or succumb to the pressures of the people and society around us.  "Do I do what I want, or what people expect of me?"  If these two possibilities are at odds, it is very difficult to stick to one's self.

As a result, it is potentially a very fruitful time to introduce the practices of yoga and meditation.  The foundation of these practices is to know oneself.  The path to knowing oneself includes cultivating greater self-sufficiency, and a compassionate attitude toward oneself--the ability to, "Be your own best friend".  What better time to begin than when one's sense of oneself is newly formed, still fragile, and in need of reassurance?

I began my adventure by teaching 35 co-ed 8th grade students their gym class one day a week.  As one might expect, the response was mixed.  I mean, naturally yoga isn’t for everyone.  Some kids would definitely rather be playing basketball.  After the first class, one of the 8th grade teachers had the lightning stroke idea to ask the kids to write down their feelings about the class.  This was the most delightfully raw and alive feedback I have ever received.  Their responses ranged from, "I hate yoga", to, "it made me feel sleepy", "Yoga was fun", and "it let my mind drift off into a deeper consciousness".  As I sifted through the papers, I began to split them into stacks of, "I hate yoga", "I don't care", and "I love yoga".  When I was done I had three almost exactly even stacks-10 hated it, 11 didn't care, and 9 loved it. And 7 weeks to go.

Years ago, back when I was in yoga teacher training, a recurring nightmare began.  “What if they won’t do what I’m telling them to do??”  This is probably rooted in my own rebellious nature.  Because I was just the sort of student who would NOT do what I was told.  So it would naturally be my karmic repayment to have students who refuse to cooperate.  Here’s the scenario that would be played out in my nightmare--I would be standing in front of the room, teaching a yoga pose.  But they wouldn't do it. Not one. In fact, they wouldn't even pay attention to me. They would be blatantly ignoring me. They would be talking amongst themselves, rolling around on the floor doing their own stretches, reading a romance novel, or maybe even walking out the door in disgust and boredom.  Once I began to teach I realized that most adults are so eager to do what I ask that sometimes I wished they would THINK a little more about what I am asking them to do before they went ahead and did it.

With kids, it's another story.  My worst nightmare became reality.  There were always a few who wouldn't do it.  Uh-oh.  What happens now?!? Initially, I felt my mind and body grip at this possibility—my need to control the situation was desperate!  But then, an amazing thing happened.  I began to relax. I took a deep breath.  My body softened.  This too was workable.  I realized their inaction was not about me, but about them.  It was an opportunity for them to assert themselves, to express their individual will through rebellion and defiance.  Gradually resourcefulness kicked in.  I explored using my language, my tone of voice, my whole being to cajole, challenge, invite, require, and playfully demand them to participate.  It was terrifying, and very empowering.    Having faced my worst teaching nightmare and survived, I became more self-assured, and a better teacher.  I was less concerned with whether my students liked me, and more able to meet them.  I became more fully alive, more deeply participating in the dance of life.

Teaching teens was a constant mirror for my self-image.  To quote a good friend, "(With kids) there is much less filter between their mind and their mouth." They mostly say what they are thinking. And what they want. As a result, we were able to have very honest conversations.  This is the opinion of a couple of sixth graders:
"We hate yoga"
"Oh really? What do you hate about it?"
"Well, it's not really that we hate yoga. And we don't hate you. You're okay, really. No offense intended. (How kind of them to re-assure me!) We would just rather be playing soccer. So we hate yoga because it's the reason we're not playing soccer." What could I say? I understood their point.

But there were also those who loved it. And their gratitude was apparent, often without words. They smiled. They were focused. They really tried to do the poses. Their joy and enthusiasm showed even as those around them rebelled.  The magic of yoga came through in such moments--the radiant heart connection of sharing something that is wordless, speechless, undefined, and delightful. Once it has been experienced, it can never be taken away from those who experienced it.

How many times did I hear this statement? Kids these days are stiff. Most kids cannot easily bend over and touch their toes.  The karmic consequences of being born into this culture with our chairs and tables include having bodies which do not easily bend at the middle.  But how was I to work with the kids in a way that they could learn to do what felt difficult to them?  When I began to hear a lot of voices saying this, I asked them to slow down. Breathe. I suggested they not push themselves so hard. As I watched them do the poses, it occurred to me that it was true, there was a place where they could not do it. But at the same time, there was a place where they COULD do it. I knew this because I was seeing them do it right there in front of me. Each in his or her own way. I pointed this out to them, and encouraged them not to worry about what they could not do. This was the mind speaking. Don't be confused or distracted by it. Instead, just do what you can do. Focus on what you CAN do, rather than what is difficult for you at this time. That is all that matters right now. This was a new idea to them. They settled down. Or, perhaps they were merely shocked into silence.

When teaching kids yoga, don't be surprised if their poses look stranger than you ever imagined possible. Try not to correct them unless you think they really might harm themselves.  Let them enjoy it and play with it, rather than get caught up in doing it right.  Kids are naturally more connected to their bodies, and thus are less likely to harm themselves. Over time as they repeat the pose they will begin to come into a better alignment. So much of what yoga is, is an unlearning.  We need to unlearn all of our deeply engrained habits and beliefs in order to open up to the vastness of who we really are.  This is the true teaching of yoga.  The yoga poses are just one step in that direction.  A helpful and supportive step.  But a step which should not be mistaken for the end result.  The yoga poses are just an aid along the way. 

Kids are forced to learn so much with their brains. As human beings, we learn through all our senses, all the time. Learning is completely intuitive and happens spontaneously. One of the delights of yoga is that it helps us to re-integrate our senses, bringing our awareness back into the body. We regain this innate ability to learn through every action when we practice yoga. The kids will pick up on this wordlessly.

Shortly after starting the first class I asked the kids to take off their socks and shoes--a basic step in most yoga classes.  There was an eruption of protests, and a firestorm of controversy started.  This was huge!  I had no idea. Myself, I am a barefoot nature girl.  Always have been.  I took my shoes off for any possible reason in junior high, as at any other time of my life.  So I was unprepared for the drama which resulted when I asked the class to take off their socks and shoes.  I just could not relate to what their protests were all about.  When I asked what the problem was their reasons covered a vast range, including, "My feet are ugly, my feet are dirty, my feet smell, my socks are dirty, the floor is dirty, the floor is cold, I have fungus, people will see my feet, people will see my socks, I have holes in my socks, I feel weird..."  I decided to do a little field research to try and resolve this issue, and cut the drama.  I began to ask my friends--all of whom were teenagers once--how they felt about being barefoot in school at that age.

Many of my friends felt similarly to me. But then I was talking about this with a male friend of mine who grew up on Long Island. Oddly enough, he could understand the kids.  "My sneakers were my identity", he said, "I remember what they looked like to this day".  This gave me some insight. And I began to understand.  Taking their shoes off was a revealing, a removing of the outer layer of protection, of the mask.  Our feet are vulnerable.  Our toes are ugly and wrinkled.  There's almost always at least one of them that is small and squished.  It is like revealing the hidden parts of our personality which we are ashamed of, and prefer to hide.  Because of the level of drama it provoked, I decided to make taking off socks and shoes optional.

With 35 kids with widely varying levels of interest, we spent a lot of time waiting for people to be quiet.  It was here that the varying interest levels became more apparent.  Those who would rather be elsewhere had little motive to stop talking.  And yet, as we progressed through the series of classes, they learned to be silent.  At the end of class we would sit silently in meditation, and simply listen.  In the stillness, the sounds of the school around us became apparent.  The murmur of other children in a distant room was heard softly, the scraping of a chair on the floor in a classroom over our heads, the hum of the lights, the ticking of the clock on the wall, even breathing could be heard at these times.  I believe we would have heard a pin had it been dropped then.  Sometimes I would bring some chimes, and ask the kids to listen closely for when the sound stopped after I rang them.  They quickly became focused around this sort of meditation.  Equally effective, and perhaps more fun was the sound of OM.  After they recovered from their initial shyness, the kids really enjoyed chanting.  A legitimate opportunity to make noise!  One day, as I finished teaching the 7th graders, the 8th grade stood outside the gym, waiting for their class to begin.  We ended the class with an OM.  As the sound died down, we heard the 8th grade OM as well-they had spontaneously joined us from where they stood in the hallway.

Eye contact is very important with kids.  In the first few classes, when we lost eye contact--for example in forward bends--we lost discipline.  Kids really respond to eye contact.  There are often a few kids who attract, and require, more attention.  As a result, others receive less attention.  And often those who get less attention are actually more focused and are participating more fully in the class.  An unfortunate irony.  But by simply making eye contact with a child, they feel included.  They feel seen.  Eye contact is essential for maintaining discipline.  Direct unmistakable eye contact was enough to stop kids acting out….at least until my watch was over!

My question to myself became, how can I maintain discipline without threats, and over all maintain a positive environment.  It was a challenge to say the least. In this culture, we most often maintain discipline with youth through intimidation—it may be subtle or obvious, but intimidation is still a form of oppression.  In my experience, this is a very unconscious habit in adults, which comes out of our small self fears, our sense of insecurity.  What would life be like if we did not do this?  What would our society, our world be like if the adults had enough self assurance to assert themselves with confidence and compassion in such a way that it inspired youth, rather than instigating rebellion?  Not that we can remove all of the rebellion from youth.  This would be unnatural.  But we can engage it, skillfully, and recognize it for what it is—the newly formed self asserting itself.  We do not need to react to this.  In fact, reaction makes it grow larger.  Rebellion feeds on reaction.

Yoga and meditation have taught me a lot about discipline. I myself was a rebellious teen, and have tended to be a rebellious sort of person. As a result for much of my life I shied away from the idea of discipline, thinking it oppressive and unnecessary. Over the years of maintaining practices of meditation and yoga, my views have changed. I have begun to feel discipline is the foundation for our lives. It is what allows us to be independent, to have a sense of our own integrity, to express our unique creativity, and to lead a fruitful life. How we are disciplined from a young age can lay a foundation for how we will treat ourselves as we grow. Thus it is of utmost importance to maintain discipline in a compassionate, wise, and genuine manner. I hoped to convey a positive message about discipline and authority to the teens.

Throughout the course of the school year I contemplated my memories of those who had been teachers for me in the area of discipline. What came to mind were images of people simply being fully present with the situation, as it was, with no need to control the outcome. My strongest memory is of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Thay, as he is called, likes to have children near him. He invites children to be at the center of things. One time he had invited a child to come and sing a song over a microphone. The child came over to Thay, took the microphone from his hand, and sat down next to him. And then it seems that he got frightened. There were several hundred of us there, people of all ages, from all over the world. It would have been a daunting situation for just about anyone. We all were in the woods at Plum Village, out for a walk together. Everyone was silent. We were not waiting. We were simply there, all together. Thay's presence and manner were the guide for the experience. After several minutes, he spoke to the child. And then another child came and sang a song. The lesson for me in this event was that nothing was wrong. It made no difference that this little boy decided not to sing. One thing was as good as another. The sense of judgement, or right and wrong, was completely absent. Things simply were as they were. This memory has stayed with me for years now. And I called upon it many times during that year, when I found myself with 35 co-ed teenagers who would not be orderly when I thought they should. When I began to feel that I was responsible for the situation and it just was not how I had imagined it.  Sometimes I even remembered to take a deep breath, and let go.

Recently I received some photographs of the kids which were taken during yoga class by a teacher at the school. I looked at them a few times, happy to see their faces again.  Then I put the pictures away, not thinking much more about it.  One day I showed them to a friend.  Immediately she said, "They look like they are having a great time!" I looked again at the pictures.  And it is true, the kids are smiling, laughing, playing ...having fun. Being kids.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  What I remember most is how I was not at all sure I would survive.

Cator Shachoy is the founder of Youth Yoga Dharma, a non-profit organization dedicated to offering youth the skills of yoga & meditation, emphasizing disadvantaged situations.  Cator is also an energy healer, with a private practice in Craniosacral bodywork, and teaches yoga and meditation to adults in SF.

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