As I finally get past the clogged freeway exit, I observe several homeless people walking the streets near the community center. Most are bundled in multiple layers against the approaching winter cold.
Thanksgiving is next week. I make a conscious effort to feel gratitude as I mentally send blessings out to all of them- the ones I can see as well as those I can’t. As I wait for my signal to change, I see a small boy, maybe 10 years of age, walking alone on the crosswalk. He looks so vulnerable to me, on these cold uncaring streets amongst all the loud, angry traffic. I find myself involuntarily shaking my head as he walks past with his gaze cast down. I wonder about his situation, why he is walking out there alone as the sky darkens.
I pull into the parking lot of my destination and park near the front entrance. This community center, though a bit scrappy, manages to exist as a lovely refuge amid the urban concrete gloom that surrounds it. The quaint building is painted a pleasing shade of soft tan.
I step onto the blacktop, open the back hatch of my minivan and, as usual, load up: to one shoulder I attach the teacher’s bag I’ve put together, stuffed with speakers, singing bowl, scented oil, yoga book, phone. With both arms, I embrace a collection of rather sloppily coiled yoga mats. The center is equipped with mats, but they’re not real yoga mats. They’re some sort of three-quarter length foam pads that slip all over the place.
A little girl fell out of warrior pose because of one of those over the summer.
These days, I bring my own mats.
Most of the mats I am currently wrestling with, I scored at a thrift store. They have acquired dark gray scuff marks. I make a mental note: I must make time to scrub them at home, in the bathtub.
The hatchback slams behind me as I move away from my car.
I waddle, rather heavily encumbered, toward the front entrance. I see people from seemingly all walks of life entering and exiting the front doors. A woman who appears to be a city employee or social worker exits without expression. A young couple strides in through the sliding glass doors alongside me—the woman holds an adorable baby.
I recall that last week, the baby had been coughing hard in the chilly air.
This week, no cough.
That is good.
Two teenage staff members dressed in orange smocks wave at me as I enter the lobby. One of them approaches and plants himself square in front of me.
“I will move the tables,” he declares, smiling.
Not quite sure what he means, I smile and nod.
I make my way to the dance room.
Once inside, I understand. There are long, gray plastic tables and chairs set up throughout the room. They must have held a holiday banquet in here earlier. In the corners sit large, black-plastic lined trash cans, filled with discarded party cups, food, and paper plates.
Luckily, there is no odor emanating from the bins.
Unluckily, there is no open floor space for the yoga class.
The young man in orange arrives, following through on his promise. Approximately eighteen years of age and muscular, he sets himself to stacking the chairs – placing them on rolling stands around the borders of the room. Although he doesn’t complain, I can tell that this is heavy, hard work. I ignore his protests and begin helping him. While he can lift three chairs stacked at once with apparent ease, I can only lift one at a time. It’s a good warmup, I tell myself.
After about 15 minutes (and the help of an additional staffer), I’m a bit sweaty and out of breath. The chairs are all stacked and the tables are folded against the edges of the room. The staff guys cart some of the chairs out on rollers. At my suggestion, we leave a few seats out along the walls for the various caretakers and/or parents who will likely want to observe, but not participate in the class.
I sit cross-legged on the worn, light oak gymnasium-style floors, which are a bit grungy. The table and chair removal has taken away any prep time prior to starting class. Hastily, I empty my self-made yoga teacher kit. I pull out my little red brass singing bowl, its wooden mallet and its pretty satin handmade pillow. Like the floors here, it is well worn. I unscrew the cap from a tiny jar of high-quality orange essential oil.
I was taught in yoga teacher training to dab every student’s third eye during Savasana.
I proceed to untangle the wires for the speakers, plug the speaker’s cord into the wall outlet and connect my phone which pipes the music to them. The students and their caretakers begin to slowly trickle in through the double doors, which I’ve propped open to welcome them, just as the music starts.
“Hi, Lisa,” calls a youthful female voice.
I look up to see who it is.
“Oh, hi, River!” I shout back enthusiastically, lightly patting the back of her shoulder as she shuffles up to me, pushing her shock of bright red hair back with one hand. She has fair, freckled skin and big, shining brown eyes. One eye seems to stare into the distance as the other makes contact with mine, lending to her somewhat mysterious and mystical appearance.
She is not without her own, unique beauty.
“Are you ready for some yoga?” I ask, trying to sound confident and chipper.
These kids can be a tough crowd.
She nods. “But I don’t want to do the Dog, because I’m a person, not a dog.”
Laughing inwardly at this, I wonder about her exact age. She appears to be sixteen or seventeen. I wonder whether she lives with her parents. The center hasn’t explicitly explained to me what my students’ living arrangements are. I am aware that some of them are wards of the state, residing in some sort of home for the impaired. This thought saddens me somewhat.
But I have something more positive on which to focus.
My goal is simple: give them a yoga class that they can really enjoy in this moment, however temporary, however fleeting.
I’m still trying to shake off the remnants of the stress from the freeway drive, the traffic jam, the guy in the truck who cut me off earlier. Greeting the students as they arrive somehow melts all of that away.
“Take off your shoes. You can keep your socks on if you’d like, but sometimes socks make us slip on the mat,” I say.
Most of my speaking to the class involves a voice that I hope conveys qualities of kindness, enthusiasm, strong leadership. I never knew I could speak that way, with spontaneity and authority in a group setting. I’ve historically self-identified as a quiet, shy introvert. But here I am, and here they are.
To an extent, they seem to actually like listening to me.
We start off with deep breathing.
I explain the desired rise and fall of the chest and tummy.
“Let’s breathe slowly, in through the nose, out through the mouth, with a nice H-A sound on the exhale,” I say.
They get into the breathing pretty well, which once surprised me. I know (by learning the hard way) that I cannot ask this class to do Vinyasa or any sort of advanced flow. I must keep it simple, and easy. When I accepted the assignment, I was told I would be teaching yoga to cognitively disabled youth—to help them, but perhaps more importantly to the hiring manager, to help the adults in charge of caring for them.
The students this evening are not all kids. There is a woman who attends each class, Nat, who appears to be in her fifties. Though technically an adult, she speaks with a childlike simplicity. Having three children myself, I like to think I understand the energy that resonates with children. All of the students in this class seem to respond best to those same types of cues. I keep it authentic, without sugar coating. At the same time, I strive for a positive, encouraging tone.
The last thing I want to do is come across as intimidating.
Inevitably some of the postures are met with a certain amount of resistance. Even those I know I can count on to participate with enthusiasm, will, on occasion, suddenly and loudly complain. I have to keep their attention and interest for a full hour—this is sometimes difficult. Especially when, for whatever reason, they happen to be feeling particularly irked by a certain posture.
A big part of the work for their yoga teacher, then, is to find ways to constantly change it up.
To keep them engaged.
This class really tests my ability to improvise.
Impromptu tree pose, because one of the students blurted out a request for it?
Skip child’s pose altogether because tonight they collectively decided they can’t do it?
We sit “criss-cross applesauce” for our resting pose today.
Colette, a brunette firecracker, yells—to no one in particular—about how she finds the asanas painful.
This is rather befuddling, as all we’re doing is a drapey, wide-legged forward bend. Nothing major. I detect that there may be an implicit, unexpressed question in her declarations of “I can’t do this! It hurts!”
After a pause, I respond.
“You can do it!”
And then, to my delight and surprise, she does do it.
Everyone congratulates her.
We move on.
Later, Colette sings along with Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” in an unselfconscious way.
“Don’t worry, ’bout a thing… ‘Cause every little thing… gonna be alright!”
She has stopped complaining long enough to serenade us while pedaling her downward facing dog along with the rest of the class.
The staffers & I exchange soft looks with gently raised brows. Warm air-laughter silently escapes my nose. Colette sings most weeks as she practices her version of yoga. It is sweet. She is slightly off the beat. I enjoy the music in the class all the more when she is singing along.
River is in Downward Dog too, in spite of her earlier warning that she had no interest in doing the canine-derived pose.
By the end of class, although we’ve done only slow, simple moves, we are all perspiring lightly. We’ve really exercised here. The kids are excited to be going into meditation (some of them have been asking me if we were ‘almost done’ since the half-hour mark. I’d assured them that we were. Little harmless lie; the definition of ‘almost’ being relative.)
River asks me if I’m going to “do the oil thing,” touching her freckled forehead; dark, sparkling doe-eyes hopeful.
“Yes,” I say.
They seem really grateful to be resting. More able to settle into stillness than earlier. This was why I was hired.
They are hyper, I was told. They need yoga to calm them down.
I go slowly around the circle of supine forms, gently touching oil to their foreheads. A few of them open their eyes and gaze affectionately at me as I do this. The scent of orange essence permeates. Most of the students are breathing softly now, appearing nearly asleep.
I suppose this is evidence that I have done my job well.
After our (interestingly, quite powerful) Om and beautiful Namaste, I wish them all a wonderful Thanksgiving. We won’t be meeting here next week, as the class is held on Thursday nights.
Strains of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” begin to emerge from the middle-school orchestra rehearsal next door. They are quite good; their music is rousing.
We are all holy, and we all deserve to be adored in our own way, I think, observing the gathering up and ushering out of these slightly different, slightly more vulnerable young people. The unsung dance of caretaker and cared for.
I suddenly feel warmed through, even as I move back out into the chilly night air. I’ve been fully enlivened by my very own, very personal version of the Holiday Spirit.
Inwardly, I make a quiet wish that everyone within the Center tonight will receive and be uplifted by such warmth, grace and resonance.