My understanding of yoga is that no matter how much I resist, it works. What that means, exactly, I’m not quite sure, and I’m ok with that. All I need to know is that my before and after states are drastically altered. Even in those moments where nothing could be less appealing than dragging myself to the studio, I am always lighter and relieved of something after a class. I feel different physically of course, and I feel even more shifts elsewhere inside where calmness seems to gain momentum with each and every visit to downward dog. It feels as if it’s a cumulative effect–no matter how long it’s been since my last practice– I am always further along towards somewhere after every class.
This process has been at the forefront of my thoughts lately as I’ve been teaching two groups of second graders at the Moffet elementary school in Inglewood’s low-income neighborhood. (in 2007, the average los angeles household income was $58,647. In Inglewood it was $40,110.) Last week, I saw two big stray pit bulls meandering around the neighborhood—one went right up onto school property while children were there! Across the street from the school, there are numerous cars up on bricks that look like they haven’t worked in ages, bike parts and lots of trash in the streets. Every day when I arrive at the school, I compete for a parking spot with the local ice cream truck who sets up just feet away from the man with the bags of cotton candy in a rainbow of pinks and blues.
But, whatever. I grew up dirt poor my whole life, addicted to Cheetos and those ice cream cookie sandwiches with the chocolate chips around the edges. My mom got food stamps. We didn’t have a car. I still shop at thrift stores and feel more comfortable living in diverse neighborhoods than some of the fancy places I’ve seen where people live in Los Angeles. And, I appreciate yoga. It’s even possible that my harsh upbringing made the idea of yoga more accessible: a place that’s perfect no matter where I’m at or what I’m doing. Please don’t confuse this with an escape, I’m not running away, if anything, running closer towards the truth of who I am and where I came from. I don’t feel like yoga has helped me to transcend or be in a position to judge how others live their lives. It just seems to illuminate my reality, which is of course, absolutely subjective and possibly even irrelevant. But I digress….
Our yoga practice space is in the cafeteria, which is also the auditorium. It’s loud and bright and distracting in every possible way. Every day, the kids come in like sugarcoated freight trains lumbering onto their mats in fits of giggles, squeaks, shouts and gossips. I am the only one in the class not fluent in Spanish, except for Priya. She also speaks Hindi. Eventually, we come to sit somewhat tall and quiet and sip in deep breaths as if we’re filling a glass of water—the bottom fills up first, then the middle, and then the very top of our lungs before we let it rush out in moans and sighs. The kids like this a lot, even if they don’t quite understand it. I’m not sure I do either.
I begin each class with a question or two: Who practiced yoga since our last class? Anyone want to share anything at all? The answers are varied and non-sequitor, and that’s precisely my goal. One student used breath to “calm down” after a fight with her mother. Another said they practiced the poses with their sister. Alejandro got a haircut (a mohawk!) Over the weekend. Javier had a birthday party. The check-in helps me to know where they are at and what are they thinking and feeling right now. Unlike teaching adults who choose to take a class, these kids have little control over their choices. I’ve come to understand that it’s why they are so rambunctious and kind of crazy. It’s theirs. They decide to do that within the parameters of their otherwise controlled lives. So we use this need for expression and we make monkey sounds and bear sounds and believe it or not, butterfly sounds (imagine the wings of a butterfly amplified through loudspeakers that make everything sound a bit like Mickey Mouse). We are all of these things and not one of them at the same time. It’s exciting and silly and it feels right to be loud and then quiet and then loud again.
We roll out our necks. I ask everyone to close their eyes as I do, but I return from darkness to see forty wide eyes staring back at me. Well, maybe thirty-eight, Jennifer will no doubt teach yoga herself one day. We begin to move through some poses. We salute the sun and the warriors we all are, we balance like trees and eagles and seek stillness as mountains. Talking mountains. Giggling mountains. But mountains nonetheless.
On a number of occasions I’ve had to ask students to leave their candy with their backpacks. It’s dangerous, I tell them, but I know we have two different definitions of what that warning means. Two of the children are severely overweight. One of them certainly weighs more than me yet stands only to my chest. It actually surprises me that more of the children aren’t that heavy as I can hear the ice cream truck music in the distance.
I wonder a lot, probably too much, about these children. What’s it like at home? How did Gabriella get that huge cut on her face? Why won’t Christopher sit still for even one second? Is this behavior normal for children? Have I really not been one for so long that I can’t remember?
The teachers don’t seem to mind, or care. They are present during every class, but sit stoic, glued to their iPhones, grateful for the reprieve my 45 minutes gives them. How much different might the classes be if the teacher actually participated with us? Did my teachers ignore me this way?
Though we’ve only had twelve classes together, the students remember poses we’ve tried once. They demand them. They go into them without my instruction. They ooh and aah at their friends’ attempts. I too marvel at the way an eight-year-old body can just fall into mandukasana (frog pose). We ribbitt and look for flies.
The three-week yoga course was designed to help these students with their upcoming state tests. Lennox schools have some of the lowest scores in California. In an illogical irony, the schools that test better receive more state funds. Those who don’t perform well are essentially punished. Or rather, the children who are already challenged are now compromised even more if they fail to comprehend the tests they have not necessarily been properly assisted with understanding in the first place. The yoga program is a test program, designed to help the students remember ways to calm down, focus and perform better on their tests. The most unlikely scenario that’s fantastic to imagine: a classroom full of students on test day who begin to “om” and breathe deeply as they try to recall the name of our last president.
Yoga has transformed and continues to alter my relationship to all things, most notably to myself, in ways i can’t always understand. I’ve been a certified teacher for almost ten years. I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras and committed myself to commit myself to this exploration–to better understand and feel that place within me that seems to never change. To be that person who sits in a room full of second graders and thinks “i I understand what you’re going through, guys,” even though, to them, I am just “Miss Jill,” someone that might as well be one hundred years old, and from a planet where everyone is born as an adult. The nearly thirty years since I was in second grade is indeed a distance immeasurable.
Our last class was yesterday. I received dozens of hugs and questions and bittersweet goodbyes. At times I felt really sad. I wondered how long I will think about these children and how long they will think about me. Will they ever give yoga another thought? Will they remember what we practiced together? Will this actually help their test scores? I want to say that yoga works whether we want it to or not. Sort of like a medicine. But maybe that’s just been my experience. Maybe yoga only works for me because I’ve wanted it to, or I was destined for it to. I just don’t know. But I do know that yoga keeps reminding me that everything is perfect as it is, even when it seems like it’s not. And for these kids, I hope that’s true too.