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County magistrate sends teens in trouble to weekly yoga classes

The Larimer County juvenile justice system has a unique approach to rehab: Send kids to yoga class for the duration of their sentence. The teens in county Drug Court may attend school or work, but each Wednesday afternoon they are required to be in yoga class.

In 2004, Magistrate Mary Jo Berenato, a yoga practitioner herself, thought the teens would benefit from yoga, and she asked Iyengar teacher Cathy Wright to help her create a program. Both thought yoga could help girls value themselves and their bodies, but upon talking they realized it would help boys with anger and stress. The classes began in the vending room of the County Courthouse, but Wright later moved them to her studio on 210 East Oak Street. In June 2007, two classes were started in Loveland; they are taught by Lynda McCullough.

It can be challenging to teach the drug court kids, says Wright, and yet in a few months of practicing yoga, she finds that many like it or apply themselves enough to benefit. The move to the studio helped the students because it was quieter and away from the justice setting. “I see a huge difference in the level of concentration and self value,” she says.

“In doing the poses they learn to take care of their physical bodies and have a relationship with themselves other than mental,” says Wright. Instead of always thinking of what they can get out of the world, they feel good about being alive. And they can do yoga anywhere and feel better.”

A teen that spends 6 months in yoga class is far more mature, says Wright. “They learn how to be in a group without calling attention to themselves in a negative way. They can demonstrate poses for the others. They develop an eagerness for the yoga and a willingness to do what is asked. They are less self conscious.”

The boys complain less, and the girls start dressing for themselves instead of the boys, she notes. “They have an inner strength they didn’t have at the start.”

At the close of class students lie on their backs in “corpse pose.” “There is calmness and peace,” says Wright. “They are all quiet.” Some of the teens have noted that yoga makes them feel good, or as one said, “It helps me feel less angry.”