I am a body person, meaning, so much of the joy in my life comes from the physical experience of being in my body. Body people tend to be the runners, the yogis, the athletes, the massage therapists and more. It makes perfect sense for a yoga teacher to be a body person. In spite of all my body knowing, it is only in the past few years that I have come to understand that the experience of trauma can drive us out of our bodies. That there are those of us that are as disassociated from our bodies as possible, disconnected because the pain of physical, sexual, mental and verbal abuse that has been received makes it too painful, too dangerous to really inhabit the body anymore. These are some of the kids I do yoga with.
In addition to encountering trauma survivors at the college I teach at, I also have worked with area high schoolers that are deemed “at-risk” by school staff. I spent a year sharing yoga in a rural high school with youth that were designated in this way. The opportunity to share the practice with these kids has been one of the most profound experiences of my life.
There are children in our community that go home to broken homes. Not only broken in the sense of missing parents but quite literally broken: no heat, no food, leaking roofs, no safe shelter. Many of these same homes have adults that are vicious, drug and/or alcohol addicted, mentally unstable or a combination of all. Most of these homes contain an abuser, be it verbal, physical or sexual. Imagine yourself in this situation. Can you?
These are the kids that make me cry at high school graduations. If they even make it to graduation. Because these are the kids that seem to disappear: dropping out, moving away, becoming a teen drug or pregnancy statistic or worse. I think of all the ways in which I support my own children and I know that not even the least of these things are happening for these kids. This is the portion of our population that defines a good day as one in which no one hurts them.
These kids are living the hardest yoga, the yoga of survival, day in and day out. The very least I can do is to show up and share some time on the mat with them each week. I too thought that sharing yoga was a small thing, inconsequential in the long run but my experience taught me otherwise. Yoga can really make a difference in the life of any trauma survivor, of any age.
The latest scientific research confirms what we know in our hearts- that child abuse has a long-term impact on a child’s life. Children who experience abuse develop toxic levels of stress. Consistent high levels of stress not only impact quality of life, they actually damage the developing architecture of a child’s brain. This ultimately results in adults who are rarely able to navigate the world in a positive way.
There are a number of studies that cite the benefits of yoga and meditation to the youth-at-risk population. If you are interested- please- follow this link and this one and this one as well. But what I really want to share with you is not a list of studies, it’s this: these kids go from pretending they don’t care about yoga at the start of the year to shyly sharing that “yoga saved my life” by the end of the year. And in between the start and end of the year, behavior improves, attendance improves, impulse control improves and self-esteem is gained.
I have seen the benefits of sharing yoga and meditation with youth-at-risk in a very real way. I know that yoga is changing these lives for the better. Yet I also understand that I am changed, bettered, uplifted, humbled, broken, made whole by this exchange as well. And I am the one that is shattered by the knowledge that we have to do better. In 2014 more than 128,000 children were referred to local DSS (Department of Social Service) for possible abuse and neglect. That same year, 25 children died at the hand of their caregivers. These statistics are unacceptable.
Light a Path is working to bring the benefits of yoga and meditation to youth-at-risk. We know that through the consistent shared practice of yoga and meditation, these kids are able to feel safe and supported as they reach for their somatic connection with the physical self. They are able to find peace and a sense of well-being within their bodies again. Everyone deserves that access. And maybe, just maybe, they have the chance to learn that, in spite of what they’ve been told, they are perfect, beautiful, and whole and have every right to be here.