Homeless, not Hopeless…

Is truly the best way to describe my experience teaching youth at Reciprocity Foundation, an organization that enables homeless and high-risk youth to permanently exit the social services system and start meaningful, sustainable careers in the ‘Creativity Economy’ (e.g. fashion, design, marketing, PR). Through Career & College Preparation, Leadership & Social Entrepreneurship and Integral Well-Being programs, Reciprocity Foundation provides participants with personal and professional tools to transform their lives, and those of their community.

Like the young boys I’d taught at Salaam Balaak Trust in New Delhi, these young New Yorkers had faced many crises of their own: the challenge of homelessness, plus many additional issues involving abuse, addiction, sexual orientation, theft, gang violence, imprisonment, etc. As a result of their experiences, society places many labels upon these youth from an early age. One of the gifts of yoga which I shared with Reciprocity youth is how it puts us in touch with our true Self, which is beyond any of the judgments others may have of us. In yogic philosophy, this true Self (with an upper-case ‘s’ because of its connection to divinity) is known as “Satchidananda,” ‘sat’ meaning ‘truth, ‘chid’ meaning ‘knowledge’ and ‘ananda’ meaning ‘bliss’ in Sanskrit. The “Kingdom of God,” or heaven, is ultimately an elevated state of being that can only be discovered within an individual.

I loved teaching at Reciprocity. The more intense backgrounds my students have, the more meaningful the experience is, and perhaps surprisingly, the more receptive my students are. This was my first time teaching underprivileged youth outside India. Given the cultural differences between the U.S. and India, I had thought the experience would be more challenging in New York than in New Delhi, that students would have more resistances and approach the practice with distrust. What I experienced was the opposite. Never had I met students so eager and excited to learn not only the physical aspects of yoga, but also about its ethical foundation of yamas and niyamas, about its philosophy and how it can be applied to a modern setting! Their interest and enthusiasm were truly inspiring.

One day, I taught a young man who had spent three years in prison. He had a three year old son who joined him for a private class. My student’s son was quite literally “bouncing off the walls,” unable to contain his energy, distracting his dad whenever and however he could, screaming loudly. Half an hour later, this same little boy became my youngest student yet – completely focused, engaged and quietly content. When our session was through, he began to protest again, except this time, “for more yoga!” Positive seeds had been planted. The experience provided me a “sneak preview” of sorts of the holistic family healing model I am developing.

My youngest student yet!

It has been said that “families that pray together, stay together.” Seeing the tranquility that came about, how calm the little boy became without having been beaten or abused (as so many are “disciplined”) provides tremendous possibilities for parenting – instead of saying “go sit in the corner” to a child as punishment, parents can calm and soothe kids by having them “go sit and do pranayama!” As pranayama (breathing exercises) are designed to help control the breath in order to gain control over seemingly uncontrollable, turbulent thoughts and emotions.

This small example also illustrated how children really do what we do, and not what we say. Observing his father practicing yoga, the little boy wanted to do so as well. The young man wanted to plant some positive seeds in his son’s early life. Instead of sending his son to a yoga class, my once imprisoned student acted as a model parent by practicing himself, thus leading by example.

Lyssette, a formerly homeless young woman, also really inspired me. Once a victim of all sorts of unimaginable abuse, Lyssette now truly serves as a role model for other students. She expressed a real interest in the spiritual roots of the tradition, asking me for copies of the prayers I chanted in our classes and for more information on the ethical foundation (yamas and niyamas) of yoga. A multi-talented young woman, Lyssette’s photography and activism have been featured in Yoga Journal, Yoga+ Magazine, and Gay City News. Her story has been featured in “In Your Shoes,” a documentary film that was named an official selection for the 2009 New York Independent Film and Video Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival.You can learn more about Lyssette and her work on the Reciprocity Foundation’s blog.

By the end of my time at Reciprocity, co-founder Adam Bucko shared how happy he was to see the transformations in so many of the young people who went through the classes, particularly in Lysette. Adam told me she is now seriously considering taking her own teacher training to serve people in organizations like the Reciprocity Foundation. I suggested the Usha Teacher Training Scholarship to her and look forward to staying informed about hers and others’ journeys.

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