Dear Art of Yoga Project teachers,

I wanted to write something beautiful for you all, to offer gratitude and support right now. It’s been a particularly challenging few weeks. The holidays are always a difficult time for the girls and because I have the privilege of learning about ALL of our now THIRTEEN sites (wow!), I hear about all the struggles, too.  Struggles like:

classes ending abruptly or cancelled altogether because of low facility staffing, too-small rooms, girls in tight jeans who couldn’t move, girls very late, girls described as “defiant”, “disrespectful”, “full of heightened energy”, “completely checked out”, “very resistant”, “impatient”, “having to be coaxed into poses”, “half-hearted”, “interrupting”, “giggling”, “poor attitudes,” “challenging group dynamics” and my personal favorite: asana was “unenthusiastically received.”

On top of that, there were facility staff that were “no help”, “distracting,” “chatty” and one particularly disheartening experience when they were very rough with the girls which caused our teachers to “feel sad and wish there was more support and guidance for [the girls].” Other AYP teachers arrived to classes and “found the girls exhausted and upset” with “one girl sobbing in class”, “a girl left the circle and threw up”, and “a confrontation in which threats were made girl to girl…”

This is indeed difficult and heavy stuff. And yet. AND YET! There was also such beauty. I wanted to write something beautiful for you all but you wrote it for me! You wrote all this beauty down each day in your class recaps. You told me the girls (often the VERY same girls on a different day!) were:

“engaged and contributing” , “thoughtful”, “in a good space,” had “light spirits”, were “open to the poses”, “all truly engaged”. Girls said they felt “calm”, “content”, “chilled”, “relaxed” “blessed and happy.”

You told me over just the last two weeks that girls led asanas, beautiful journals were made, writing was done, emotional processing happened and brand new girls were introduced to this beautiful practice. Girls were inspired by Nelson Mandela, learned tools for inner peace and calm, reflected on women they admire, played fun yoga games in which their postures were “sewed together”, met their older, wiser selves which gave them advice, heard poetry by Rumi, shared thoughts and feelings on many subjects like generosity, hope, labels and gratitude, distinguished between wants and needs, wrote poems and made ekphrastic collages, articulated their dreams, learned how to budget money, met with their mentors, appreciated our bodies and celebrated being women!  To quote one of our girls last week “That’s deep.”

And personally, I went to Girls Court last Wednesday and realized 3 of the girls there had current yoga mentors—one of which told the judge she loved yoga, that it calmed her and made her feel better. And yesterday, my own new mentee told me the same.

Some of you saw these successes too! You saw these shifts. You said:

“When we ended, nearly every girl said thank you to me and Kristen for the class…it seemed the gratitude had really rubbed off by the end of class.”

“It was a very productive day at the school. The girls were quick to join the circle and get ready to begin our session. They loved the art project and are really starting to open up and share more about themselves with us. Today was, for this group, the best participation in the yoga circle.”

“The mood in class dramatically shifted by the end. The class left everyone in a much more positive mood.”

“There was the most beautiful focused Savasana imaginable, brought to you by Sarah’s wonderful guided meditation.”

“The meditation really met the girls where they needed to be supported.”

And from Nora who witnessed a breakthrough with a girl at the Center for Young Women’s Development: “[This was] a moving reminder for all of us that even when a girl appears ‘non-participatory,’ the work can be deeply affecting them.” So true!!

I wanted to write something beautiful for you all but you already wrote it to me and to each other.  Thank you. Your words make me weep with concern, sadness, despair, delight, joy and deep fulfillment. Your words and teaching illustrate the yin and yang of what we do, the ease and discomfort, the healing and the suffering, the light and dark in each of us that we hold space for every day for these wonderful girls.

Please know how much you are valued, admired, respected, and loved. And please reach out if you need support at any time.

Have a blessed holiday,

Mary Lynn



Poetry in Song Form

By Shannon Larsen
June 2013

As a yoga instructor for AYP, I am grateful to be able to visit both James Ranch and the girls unit in Juvenile Hall.  It gives me the opportunity to work with girls that rotate in and out of the hall quite frequently as well as spend time in curriculum and creative expression with those at the Ranch, who tend to be there much longer.

I recall beginning class at the Ranch one winter day speaking about our form of creative expression and outlet for release. Anne, our writing teacher, had been visiting the girls and I was able to be there for a few of her Thursday writing days.  It was amazing witnessing the girls find their words and become more and more comfortable sharing their stories, their truths.  I shared with the girls that one of my ways to express myself and find release was through songwriting and that maybe one day I could share a song with them.  After making sure I could bring my guitar in, the next time I was scheduled to visit James Ranch, I brought my guitar.

I let the girls know that before we practiced, I wanted to share a piece of my life with them since they share pieces of theirs with me.  We re-visited the idea of our stories being our gifts.  How Anne says that it’s important to share our life stories with others.  I told them that as a teenager I didn’t know how to express myself but when my brother showed me how to play the guitar, I started writing songs about all the things happening in my life, including the hard stuff.  However, I ONLY sang in secret in the bathroom with no one listening.  Not until an important woman  encouraged me to share my “gift” with others did I start playing songs publicly.  I told them that just like poems and life stories, songs are my way to share life as I see it and as I learn. And it is also a way that I practice purity of mind as I work through my own feelings and thoughts. The song I shared is called Change the World, one that I wrote.  One girl stared intently at me the whole time as another doodled in her journal.  Afterwards the ladies were ready to have a physical practice which we kept very watery and a bit more mellow, focusing on breath and what our bodies needed.  I noticed that the girls seemed more uninhibited that day after having listened intently to the song I shared, and perhaps recognizing that we all have stories and gifts to express. I’ve brought my guitar in several times now and no matter how distracted the girls appear at first, they always quiet to listen as I share songs with them.

Change the World (Lyrics)

Poppa why are you working so hard
Momma why are you crying in that car
Young loves why are you running away
What do we have to say, do we have to say?

Brother why are you acting so hard
Sister why don’t you love yourself as you are
Old fools why are you disappointed in youth
What do we have to say, do we have to say?

Some things seem like they’re never gonna change
But I can tell you darlings they don’t have to stay the same
If we believe in love and understanding
And you and me…
We can change the world

Why do we live in boxes black and white
Is that so much scarier than risking flight
Why do we run in circles like we do
There’s somethin different now somethin different now, for me and you

Spread arms the wingspan of a storm
Find your truth and escape all the nor
And flyyy-yyy-yy my bird
There’s somethin different now somethin different now, haven’t ya heard

Who knows how much time we got
Take time to free your mind we got
Who knows how much time we got
Take time to free your mind, free your mind

Some things seem like they’re never gonna change
But I can tell you darlings they don’t have to stay the same
If we believe in love and understanding
And you and me…
We can change the world
Change the world
We will change the world.







Writing Teacher Anne Heffron recounts her first days with girls in juvenile detention.

Three years ago, I taught my first writing class for The Art of Yoga Project (AYP). I went to the Wright Center with a lot of excitement and ideas, and by the end of my hour the girls were practically on me, drawing hearts on my fingers, writing their names on the back of my hand. They were wild from writing, wild from my excitement, wild from the fact that one of the girls, with my encouragement, had read her story to us that featured the shouted refrain, “Fuck that!” Rebecca Bara was the lead yoga teacher and Site Director, and she was watching with me with…okay, not horror, but not not horror either.

Rebecca called me after the class, and she reiterated to me that AYP and the juvenile facility had rules, rules that needed to be followed. I am a creative writer. Rules? Hello? Finally, I said, “Why don’t you teach the class?”

Rebecca is smart, and she is a yogi. It’s a terrific combination, and soon she had me eating out of the palm of her hand, sticking to the amazing curriculum Mary Lynn Fitton had created, teaching in a way, I hope, that leaves the girls empowered instead of wild. Because empowered, a focused wildness, will get them a lot farther than pure wildness has gotten them in the past.

I teach a ten-week curriculum. That’s one hour times ten. Ten hours. That means there are forty-two weeks every year where I do not see the girls. That is 294 days or 2,058 hours. I have no idea how much time I spend thinking about the girls, but I do know it’s a daily thing. I try to think of the perfect writing projects, things that will make them crack open, seal shut, sing, hush. Projects that will let them see their strength, their courage, their beauty. It’s a lot to try to get into ten hours. I guess that’s why I think about it so much.

By Wesleigh Roeca
December 10, 2012


It’s a dark Wednesday evening in the heart of the Mission district of San Francisco.  Class was supposed to start at 6pm sharp.  Shikha and I quickly review our lesson plan while sweeping remnants from lunch off the floor.  We fold up the tables, and place eight brightly colored, donated yoga mats in a circle on the still somewhat sticky floor.  It’s now ten minutes after six.  Suddenly, excited voices resonate from the stairs.  We exchange glances and share a deep breath to prepare.  We’re ready.  The girls tumble into our makeshift yoga studio, sneakers haphazardly stepping all over and soiling the purple and blue mats we had carefully positioned.  I try and relax.  “Breathe,” I say to myself.  Just as the shoes come off and yoga mats are noisily claimed, another voice erupts from the stairway – “Get your things!  Everyone out the back door and upstairs immediately!  There was another shooting.”  “Another shooting?” I say, uncomprehending.  “Let’s go. Now!” the voice commands.  My heart pounds as I grab my shoes and scurry out the door with the rest of the girls.  Once upstairs, one of our students nonchalantly comments, “Weird, usually the shots are louder than that.  I didn’t even hear them this time.”  “Breathe,” I again say to myself.
The Art of Yoga Project’s mission is to break the cycle of gang-related violence affecting at-risk teenage girls.  The goal is to lead them toward accountability to self, others and community by providing practical tools to effect behavioral change that will ultimately guide them to a more positive future.  At Mission Girls in San Francisco, a community center offering after school and summer programs to Latina girls, we have spent the past two months introducing GEMM (Girls Empowered by Money Mindfulness) curriculum to teach financial literacy.  Through guided yoga classes and lesson plans incorporating yogic principles, we are offering a fresh approach to the fundamentals of managing money.  Our lesson plans have included discussions and activities on topics such as needs versus wants, budgeting, creative and ethical ways to make money, and the empowerment that can come from saving money with a savings account.  We covered the difference between credit unions and banks – which included a special guest lecture from a representative of Mission SF, a community-based credit union, located just a few blocks away from the Mission Girls’ site.  For our next session, we have organized a field trip to Mission SF so the girls will have the opportunity to open savings accounts and begin planning for a more financially responsible and empowered future.
We are all affected by money.  Some of us have it.  Some of us don’t.  Most of us stress about it, and inevitably, our lives are influenced by the beliefs we have about it.  Most of these beliefs are acquired from our upbringing and culture – rarely do we spend time formally educating our youth, especially those in at-risk populations, about their finances.  The goal of GEMM curriculum is to spark discussion and self-inquiry into what these beliefs are and how we can learn from them in order to take responsibility for our financial decisions.  By teaching money mindfulness through yoga and interactive, theory-based activities, we are engaging the girls in a way that encourages them to deeply consider the role of money in their lives so they may become thoughtful consumers and more knowledgeable about their financial lives.

Providing alternative perspectives on how to live is essential to break the cycle of gang-related violence in the lives of these young girls.  GEMM curriculum lays the foundation upon which they can begin to build stable financial lives by instilling the importance of having a budgetary plan, by teaching them the discipline to stick with that plan, and perhaps most importantly, by empowering them to take control of their finances and escape their gang-infected environment.  In the words of one GEMM participant, “If I had enough money, I would go to a good college.”  Her dream job, by the way, is to become a Supreme Court Justice.  GEMM curriculum is empowering these girls to take action and create lives that are meaningful, authentic, and outside of the detrimental cycle they’re already too familiar with.

It should be noted that after the shooting incident, we have taken extra steps to ensure our safety as AYP teachers.  While we will do whatever we can to make a positive impact in the lives of these at-risk young girls, we do not believe in risking our own lives in order to accomplish this.  We now carry pepper spray, coordinate carpooling to and from class so that we each arrive along with a co-teacher, and we have rescheduled class to avoid having sessions when gang violence is “hot”.  That being said, I strongly believe in both our program and our students and believe that with GEMM curriculum, they’re being given tools to break the cycle.  Hopefully, their children don’t make the comment, “Usually the shots are louder than that.”

by Betsy Franco
November 24, 2012

Betsy Franco with Art of Yoga Project teacher Jana Kilgore

I had the privilege of working with seventeen girls in Pine Four at the Youth Services Center in San Mateo–thanks to The Art of Yoga Project and the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre.  I taught creative writing to the girls for a total of five amazing weeks.  Each session, one by one, they were let out of their rooms, which surrounded the lobby we met in.  As soon as I saw the first two girls on the first day, I knew I was meant to be there.

Mats were laid out in a circle, like the rays of the sun, and we did a series of yoga poses to center ourselves and access our creativity.  Then the writing began.  The poetry and stories the girls wrote were honest, heartfelt, and powerful…and healing for all of us.

From the start they were serious about their writing, about telling their truth, and about their handwriting.  They were even serious about the color of the paper they chose to write on.  Everything mattered.

Since I have compiled four anthologies of teen writing published by Candlewick Press, I read a few poems from those books as a jumping off place each week.


Journal CoverThe first week, I read a poem from my anthology, You Hear Me? poems and writing by teenage boys.  It was by a boy from Detroit who listed what he wanted in his life.  Then the girls wrote about what they wanted. One girl said she didn’t know what she wanted, was afraid what she wanted was bad for her, but she managed to write a beautiful poem.

One girl who said she was hella bored when she checked in about how she was feeling, wrote and wrote and wrote.  She said she wanted what could never happen. So another girl made up a motto for all of us that “the impossible is possible.”

A handful shared their poems in their entirety and then each poet wrote two lines from her poem on a small paper.  I collected them all, shuffled them, and read them as a collaborative poem, anonymously.

[poem by a girl in week one]

I Want

I want to be free
I want to leave this place
I want to turn the key
I want these locked doors to open

I want to live lavishly
I want to forget
I want not only what money can buy
I want to be loved

I want control
I want my emotions to stop taking over me
I want to take my heart off my shoulder
I want to face my fears

I want to get it off my chest
I want to drown my sorrows
I want to cry out the pain
I want to win

I want to start over
I want to run and never look back
I want a new beginning
I want to turn this chapter

I want to be free


There were 8 girls.
We bonded.


The second week, I read poems from You Hear Me? and Falling Hard, 100 love poems by teens.  The girls wrote their own poems using these poetry prompts:
Just because _____, doesn’t mean _____.

I remember

One girl announced that she’d been waiting all week for the writing session.

The girls wrote about being molested, about being tired of everything and everyone in juvenile hall, about cheating on their boyfriend and their boyfriend cheating on them, about how their mind wasn’t always telling them the truth, about how “even if I can’t love themself, I can still love you.”

We all snapped after every girl who volunteered to read.  They introduced me to snapping instead of clapping.

I told them they were the wisest class I’d every taught and one girl said, “You’d be surprised what happens when you put someone in a cell.”

[poem by a girl in week two]

Just because I am the way I am doesn’t
mean I don’t have a bad past.

Just because I was molested at a young age
doesn’t mean I’m going to let my daughter go
through the same pain.

Just because I cry about it doesn’t mean
I’m going to let it bring me down.

Just because I don’t say anything
doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.

Just because I don’t love my self ’cause
my past doesn’t mean I can’t love you.


There were 12 girls.
We got closer.

The third week, I read poems from my anthology Things I Have to Tell You, poems and writing by teenage girls.  The poetry prompts were:

I am grateful
I am

When I read the collaborative poem using two lines from each of the girls’ poems, the new girl asked,” Who wrote these?”  She was amazed at the power of the words and that they had come from the girls surrounding her and herself.

[poem by one of the girls in week 3]

I’m a box full of secrets.
I’m a star that doesn’t shine because I’m dusted with shame.
I’m all my broken thoughts waiting to be heard.
I’m always trying to run away from
myself unconsciously and consciously.
I’m everything to someone, yet nothing
to myself.
I’m a lost soul floating around
confused waiting to be found.
I’m forever killing myself with any
substance I can find because
I’m all pain inside.
I’m a robot following patterns of craziness
and thrills that temporarily make me numb.
I’m a person trapped in a mind that
controls me afraid to let me go and see
the real me.
I’m something I don’t like to feel so
I keep hiding my face, repeating my lines,
tricking my pain, mistaking happiness for
adrenaline, ignoring all my feelings, doing my


There were 10 girls.
Some had been released.
It was intense and wonderful.


The fourth week, I showed them how to draw up their energy in order to write-–by rubbing their faces and arms and filling themselves with light.  I told them they could write, no matter if I was there or not.  I gave them a message from my son, James Franco: “Find something you love to do and work hard at it.”

I read some monologues from my book, 21 Monologues for Teen Actors, and they wrote very short stories about their lives.  I explained that there are so many genres to write in.  Sometimes you can write intense feelings, sometimes uplifting memories or stories.

Writing has a “magical” power, and the girls began to inspire themselves.  That’s what we found out, along with the fact that even the impossible is possible.

There were 13 girls.
We learned more about each other.


The fifth week, each girl picked a poem and performed it beautifully and proudly in the Pine Four Poetry Slam.  We pretended they were being filmed and I taught them some performance skills.  My actor son Dave Franco sent them a message “to breathe and relax and they would perform well.”  One of the poems made the reader cry and made us all cry.  Everyone was courageous and read their very personal poems to the group.

These are the Pine Four Writers.  They are writers, and they will keep writing.

You should feel privileged that you get to read about them and that they are willing to share their poems in this blog.


Collaborative Poem: Week 1

I Want  

I want to hit reality
I want to open my eyes
I want to be free
I want for people to care.
I want to meet Betsy’s son
I want my life to change
I want a man I can make my husband.
I want respect and loyalty
I want friends that aren’t fake and won’t say my business
I want to make my parents proud.
I want to have fun, yet remain on the right track.
I want to be free from the patterns that control
my mind,
I want to learn how to deal with my pain and
my past instead of running away.
I want to live my dreams
I want to finish school
I want a steady career, a life
100,000 income a year, cars, freedom
I want things I know that
could never happen.

Collaborative Poem: Week 2

Just Because…Doesn’t Mean
I Remember

Just because I don’t get
along with my mom doesn’t
mean I don’t love her
Just because I’m locked up doesn’t
mean I’m a criminal.  Just
because I use drugs doesn’t mean I’m
a fiend.

Just because I’m here
doesn’t mean I can’t change

Just because I’m independent
doesn’t mean I don’t care about others
I remember once I saved a couple lives.

Just because I’m spending 3 months
Doesn’t mean I don’t remember

I remember when I first got this hairy
black and white thing  it was on
my bed in its pink furry bed.
Her eyes barely open already a spoiled princess
like all my mom’s girls

Just because I wave at
someone doesn’t mean I’m flirting
with them.

Just because I say you’re cute doesn’t
mean I like you.

Just because I say I’m tired doesn’t mean
I want to sleep.

Just because I smoke weed
doesn’t mean I’m retarded.

Just because of what the mind
assumes it may not be what is

Just because I don’t say anything
doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt
Just because I don’t love my self
’cause my past doesn’t mean
I can’t love you!

Collaborative Poem: Week 3

I am like…
I am grateful…

I am grateful for a loving family and beautiful
I am like a baby bird waiting for my chance to
fly away.

I love you no matter what.  You’ll always
be my little one.

I am like a child
with no worries or troubles.
Only of being stung by a bee
or falling over and scraping my knee.

I’m a star that doesn’t shine
because it’s dusted with shame.
I’m all my broken thoughts waiting
to be heard.

I am grateful for you but when you
bring me down I don’t know where to
go who to run to.  All I think about
is a world full of smoke, white powder,
pills and eyes full of red pain

I’m grateful everything happens for a reason.
I am like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly,
I can’t wait to see my full potential.

I am grateful for my parents’ undying, hardworking, crazy
I owe them the world.

I am grateful for the little things I have
because I earned them with my own two
I am grateful for still having a beating heart
at the age of sixteen.

I’m shocked but it’s a cold world.

Our group saying:

           Even the impossible is possible.


The Art of Yoga Project

The Art of Yoga Project focuses on early intervention to help marginalized and justice-involved girls prepare for a positive future. We are leaders in the treatment and rehabilitation of justice-involved girls by offering gender-responsive, trauma-informed, culturally-responsive, and strengths-based programming.

Our mission is to lead at-risk, exploited and incarcerated girls toward accountability to self, others, and community by providing practical tools to effect behavioral change. We send specially trained yoga teachers, art therapists, creative arts and writing educators into facilities to deliver our mindfulness-based curriculum.

The Art of Yoga Project is a 501(c)(3) non profit. Tax ID #20-2448697.