By Michelle Grambeau
Original publication July 2015 on the Namaste Foundation blog
Operating within the juvenile justice system, The Art of Yoga Project provides yoga, mindfulness and creative arts programming for incarcerated and exploited teen girls.
I had the opportunity to visit the center last week to participate in the weekly yoga practice and join forces on a visual storytelling project with the girls. After fingerprint tests and security clearance, a process that took weeks, I was granted access. As a yoga teacher myself I have been in more yoga classes than I can count, yet entering onto the grounds of Kemp Camp was entirely new territory.
There is a diverse and complex nature to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ these young ladies (ages 12-18) become incarcerated. Yet, consistently 90-95% self report some form of trauma—sexual, physical or emotional abuse, exploitation, or prolonged neglect.
Knowing the above statistics begs of us as a society to ask smarter questions, looking deep into the cycle of trauma, victimization, delinquency and reformation.
- What does true rehabilitation look like?
- How do we empower and heal the mind and body of a traumatized girl moving through the challenging transition into womanhood?
- What tools can we offer her so she has a shot at building a healthy future for herself?
Onsite at the Juvenile detention center it was clear the first step, which many facilities overlook, is the need for gender specific rehabilitation. The Art of Yoga Project was envisioned to meet this need in a variety of enlivening ways.
With recognition of the cyclical nature of victimization and abuse, all certified yoga teachers, therapists, art and writing educators receive trauma-informed and strength-based training. The end result is a population of girls who have safe space to physically, emotionally and mentally ground and center. With tangible weekly practice in emotional regulation and healthy relationship building comes an opportunity to heal the patterns of hurt in body, mind and community.
When practicing bakasana crow pose (a rather difficult balancing pose on the hands), I told the girls that they could one day float forward and lift up into a headstand. The response was unanimously, “Oh yea? Show us.”
The pressure was on. All those hours of practicing and teaching yoga were about to pay off. As I moved through this challenging transition, I could feel every eye in the room intensely. After a successful delivery, I lowered my feet to the ground, one of the girls blurts out, “Daaaaaaaaaaang Michelle” and the room erupted into laughter and conversation. There was vulnerability, unknown and a willingness to see the humanness in the each other’s eyes. After practice, two students asked me to take a photo of them in the same crow pose. It was in this moment that it became ever more apparent, the importance of having strong female role models and the safe space to express, share and relate.
When I started teaching writing with the Art of Yoga Project in July 2014, I told the girls in detention to think of writing as yoga for the imagination. Writing, I told them, stretches our ideas, stretches how we imagine ourselves and how we think about our world. And it’s fun: on the page, anything goes.
Like yoga, expressive writing is therapeutic for people of all ages who’ve experienced trauma – which consistently 95 to 99 percent of girls self-report experiencing prior to their entry into the juvenile justice system. Their trauma may be sexual, physical or emotional abuse, exploitation, or even prolonged neglect. Finding language for traumatic experiences helps victims process their memories, and begin to heal.
This week’s class at Santa Clara Juvenile Hall was a good – and playful – example of how this emotional processing takes place, and how girls in juvenile detention face far different challenges than girls their age who have lived without trauma, yet have so many similarities.
Our project focused on questions—because, as I suggested to them, knowing our questions is just as important as knowing our answers, and sometimes even more so. My co-teacher, Julie Wool, started by centering and grounding the girls with a short yoga sequence, and then I shared a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke:
“…Have patience with everything that is unresolved in your heart and try to live the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. … Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer.”
“That’s deep,” one girl said, and asked for an extra piece of paper to copy it down.
Then we talked about questions, the questions that shape our lives now and in the future. Who tells us who we are? Where do we want to go with our lives? How do we want to get there? I invited them to write down absolutely any question they had, on any topic. I offered some prompting, such as: Consider the things that feel uncertain in your life. Consider the things that influence you, and why. Consider the mysteries of your life, and why they are important to you. Then, imagine there was a source for all the answers. What questions would you ask? Write down as many questions as you can think of. Don’t worry about the answers.
The girls had amazing responses. Some wrote questions about god and aliens and life and the afterlife. One girl wrote, “Why is the devil a fallen angel?” Many wrote the whys of the future and past, their families, and their relationships. Some wrote questions about their bodies like, “Your nails – what is that white dot that can be there?” and “Why wasn’t I an animal? Like a cat, dog, fish or pig?” They had a lot of fun with each other’s ideas (“That white dot means someone is thinking about you.” “You would have been eaten if you were a pig!”). Even those who didn’t write much enjoyed the discussion, with me encouraging them to “put those words on paper!”
I told the girls to notice how our questions connect us, that many of them wrote similar or even identical questions, or when they heard someone’s question called out, “Yeah, I want to know that too!” A big part of the discussion was letting go of the need to have answers, to stand with the mysteries and embrace “the questions themselves” as Rilke wrote. One girl said she liked the idea of “living your way to the answers” without trying.
Two girls were moved to dive deep for this project, and wrote questions that, when read together, had the qualities of rhythmic poems and personal stories. Woven together, their questions even seemed to hold answers.
Questions by “C”
Everyone has a purpose in life, what is mine?
Why couldn’t I have blue eyes?
Why does the “higher” people hide things from us?
Isn’t this a free country? But yet there’s so many rules.
If there’s a god and when we die there’s a heaven and a hell, then how come we see ghosts on earth?
When and how will I die?
How would it be if we choose our family?
When will I get out?
Why can’t we have three wishes in life?
Why are alcohol and drugs legal, but yet they can kill you?
Why can’t we choose our life?
We can’t we read people’s minds?
Why can’t we have super powers?
How can a female give birth to another human?
How come my pencil isn’t sharp?
Why was I born a girl?
Why can’t I know what I know now?
Why can’t I restart my whole life?
How can people believe in something they can’t see?
I wonder what I look like from my enemies’ eyes?
Questions by “S”
Why do we have the lifestyles we have? Why can’t we choose our life? It’s like everything was made for us, without consent. When we’re born I feel like God already knew our choices we would make to this day.
Why are we who we are? Why am I the daughter of ____? Why did my mom marry my stepdad ____? Why did my stepdad beat and abuse me? Why are some people immune to physical, verbal, emotional and mental abuse? Who taught us the wrong ways in the world?
What’s the point of love? Why do people cheat, lie, and hurt others? What’s the point of falling for someone who won’t always be there for you when shit happens? Why can’t I be as happy as everyone else?
Why does the good die young? Why do we all end up having to say goodbye? Why did god create a time in their life when we eventually leave? Will we all go to heaven? How will I die? Car accident, shooting, overdose, beat to death, or will I just die old? Why do people judge and discriminate? Why do people look to god when they are in trouble, but not just any day? Why do people expect the higher power “god” to answer all their prayers?
Why doesn’t my mom understand me? Does she really care? Why do we keep making the same mistakes, knowing we weren’t happy the first time we made them? Why was I born?
Where did the human race begin? When my time comes will god forgive me from all my sins? Will he accept me? Will I be loved? Why do we die?
Writing about trauma isn’t easy, and as a teacher it can be heartbreaking to witness. My co-teacher and I both give the girls a lot of feedback as they’re sharing—not just compliments, but responses that reflect our understanding and empathy. I always offer to type up the girls’ work and bring it back to them, which helps them to realize that what they’ve expressed is important, that it’s being held safely, that it’s worth keeping – and, like them, should be treasured.
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Be a Part of Silicon Valley Gives on May 5
We are so excited to be participating in Silicon Valley Gives on Tuesday, May 5th! We will be joining with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and other local non-profit organizations for 24 hours of giving right here in our own community.
And the best news is that Namaste Foundation will be matching donations to The Art of Yoga Project – dollar for dollar – up to a total of $10,000 during this very special event. So your donation will count twice as much!
Please take a minute to show your support for The Art of Yoga Project’s extraordinary work with at-risk, exploited and incarcerated teen girls. Your donations make it possible for us to deliver yoga and creative arts programming to 700 girls annually in San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.
You can schedule your donation right now so you won’t forget! Please help us spread the word by forwarding this email to your friends.
A HUGE thank you to all of our supporters!
Our 2015 Training
And in my dreams life was joy
And to my sorrow life was service
I opened my heart and behold
My joy became my service
Lisa Pedersen, AYP Executive Director, read those words to 42 women last Friday evening as we kicked off our 9th annual training “Using Yoga and Art to Empower At-Risk and Exploited Teen Girls.” We start each of our trainings this way, reminding participants why we are there and thanking them for their intention to serve. I felt it was our best training ever and our leadership team agreed. Three things stood out for me this year: Professionalism, Depth, and Spirit.
Professionalism: A big shout-out to the Sobrato Center for Nonprofits for hosting us in their beautiful Shoreway Conference room. It allowed us to have desks and tables, as well as big screen media AND space for our large circle of yoga mats. This provided our participants a variety of ways to take in information—didactic to somatosensory!
Depth: Each year our content evolves, grows and clarifies. From our new state-of-the-art AYP Trauma Toolkit, to safety, communication, cultural humility, research, commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), self-care, and trouble-shooting, this year we dove even deeper than ever before! Participants also took part in a sample yoga and creative arts class themed Honoring the Feminine.
Spirit: Part of what makes The Art of Yoga Project who we are is our circles. We had several in our training, beginning and closing each day and in between to “ground, orient and center.” This year our closing circle included a community blessing with singing and guitar by the lovely performer and AYP teacher, Shannon Larsen. It was loaded with SPIRIT! AYP Site Director, Sarah Barnard, (in her 7th year of leading training with us) put it well: “What I love about this year is how we were able to ‘up our game’ professionally while still keeping the important heart-centered community-building experience that people have come to appreciate. We cover some pretty intense material, but at the same time, I think people leave feeling refreshed as if they took part in a weekend retreat. Amazing! So proud to stand side-by-side with all of you!”
Following is a tribute from our Founder Mary Lynn Fitton to our teachers that work with us to bring this amazing program to at-risk, exploited and incarcerated teen girls.
I am often asked what I enjoy most about our work at The Art of Yoga Project. There are so many things! At the top of the list is the way we all come together in support of these unique and wonderful girls. And what really moves me is how we care for each other in the process.
Behind the scenes, Lisa, Nicole and I are working with our incredible board to sustain our programs and there is no shortage of love going around between us. Then there are all of you, day in and day out, helping each other to be a force for good in the lives of our girls. I am often moved to tears watching and hearing you do this. So, in honor of this holiday, I want to share a few examples from your recaps. (And I had a great number to choose from!) These are your teacher-to-teacher correspondences and they make my heart swell with happiness. Note: I removed teacher names to honor privacy—and because I feel we should all take in these words collectively! I invite you to sit back and hear from each other again:
“I’m so inspired by the bravery exhibited. Beautiful class plan that obviously brought the girls to a really safe, open place. Tremendous work!”
“Your sweet attention to X’s emotional tone should be noted. While she was having a tough time engaging in the postures, there is something deeply healing in having the teachers give her space to be quiet and supported in her own way. The nurturing attention you offered, no doubt, gave her a sense of being seen. Thank you! Offering you all so much love on this Friday afternoon.”
“Dear X, thank you so much for that meditation. I could feel and hear and see the girls breathing into it, relaxing. It was dynamite. Thank you!”
“Such a beautiful class. I find so often that the girls are impacted by those immediately surrounding them, impacting their ability to participate and engage. SO great to see the ways that everyone was inspired by the challenge of bird of paradise and it seemed to ignite something within those girls who were otherwise checking out.”
“That is an immense amount of energy to hold, X and X. First with the large group (12 girls! and more arriving!) in that small space. It sounds like you both did an absolutely amazing job offering a full class with those important moments of grounding in child’s pose and balance. So sweet to hear of the shift that you observed in some of the newer girls—well done!”
“Here’s to the continued discovery, challenges and successes, ladies!”
“The emotional arrival of the new girl on the unit is such a raw reminder of what so many of these girls must feel on some level. The sense of loss, the sense of being ‘out of control,’ the sense of wanting everyone to hear your pain loud and clear. A difficult thing to witness and to see the unit staff work to maintain some sense of calm and order in that chaotic moment. It sounds like you both did exactly what you needed—focusing on keeping yourself and the girls calm (not easy!) so the staff could take care of their responsibilities. I’m glad you also had a moment to check in with Ms. B at the close and to receive her supportive feedback. I am more than happy to take some additional time to debrief the experience with either of you. Take care of yourself and be aware of your own emotional residue. Sending you and all the girls and staff so much love and light”
“That’s a beautiful write up, X. Thanks for your strong support.”
“What a wonderful class—I just feel like sharing— It is clear that the only thing you ladies can control is what you offer in your beautiful sacred space—whether they participate is less important than what they seem to consistently gain from merely being on these mats with all of your positive, meaningful intentions.”
“Girls were very engaged and sweet, with a visible shift from beginning to end. Great to finally witness X’s wonderful energy and connection with the group in the seat of the teacher! Class was so soothing…and the sounds of rain and wind outside helped to ground us all.”
“I really appreciate X’s teachings. It’s easy to see that she authentically practices what she preaches.”
“Thank you, X! It WAS a lot of energy! And so very heartbreaking to experience such angst and sorrow and pain Those girls. And what they endure. Wow. True goddesses, all of them. Thank you for acknowledging and appreciating both me and X. I feel so genuinely supported and cared for. In Light, Love & Gratitude, X”
And when one of you stepped forward to cover another’s shift within moments:
“X, You are ROCKIN my world!!!! Thank you so much!”
Can you feel the GRATITUDE, the SUPPORT, the LOVE and RESPECT between you?! I hope so because I feel it for each and every one of you.
When I read these words I see and feel us together. All across this work, I see us leaning on each other as we bear witness to the pain our girls endure. I see us linking arms to provide strength for the girls to draw upon. And I feel us in a big virtual-embrace celebrating our successes big and small. You are certainly rockin my world!
Sending love and wishes for a blessed holiday to each of you,