Jeanne is leading yoga once a week at Camp Spirit, one of the UrbanPromise after school programs which serves kids in 5th through 8th grade. Mostly boys have been interested in her class. One afternoon a bigger kid showed up for yoga in his hoodie – hood on his head – and earbuds in his ears. Jeanne welcomed him with her warm smile, gave him a mat, and asked if he would like to take off his sweatshirt. “No” was the reply. “OK” was Jeanne’s ready response – thankfully she took special training in street yoga, and comes prepared for anything. Class began, and this kid was into it, following her directions. Soon the hoodie came off – Jeanne’s power yoga makes anyone warm pretty quickly. A few minutes later, out came the earbuds. And at the end of class he went up to her and said, “I really like yoga!!!”

Raquel is leading yoga at Camp Freedom. Located in a small corner building near Sacred Heart church in south Camden, it too serves older kids. She has 15 regulars practicing yoga weekly, and ends with 10 minutes of shavasana, otherwise known as lying quietly on your mat. Most yoga classes end this way, and Raquel uses this time to lead the kids through a meditation, which helps clear their minds. Ronda, too is leading yoga in our downtown site. When kids come to her bursting with impulsive energy, she will use shavasana at the start of class as well as the end – after a few minutes of quiet, they are all present to her.

When I hear these stories I wonder if this is the first time these kids have experienced silence. In the book, “Bridges Out of Poverty” by Ruby Payne et al, constant background noise is named as one of the patterns of generational poverty – in the house almost always the TV is on and conversation is participatory, often with more than one person talking at a time. That’s not to mention the likelihood of living in a small row home with multiple generations, loud music and traffic outside…Camden is not a place where one goes to escape it all! When I speak with teens about study habits, they look at me like I am crazy when I suggest setting up dedicated work space. Bedrooms are shared. There is no dining room. Rarely is there any time alone.

I recently presented my work to date to UrbanPromise’s board. When I spoke of yoga, I felt compelled to say, “it sounds like fluff – offering yoga classes – but it’s not.” I believe many of us feel that practices like yoga are play, or a treat to ourselves – but once again research is showing us that it is part of the solution. Yoga promotes self awareness – of body, of breathing, of the activity of the mind. This awareness leads to an increased ability to self-regulate…and don’t you know, self control is one of the seven character strengths that are likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement! To read more, check out the book, “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough.

The question is how can we increase opportunities for increasing self-control? In the classroom, mindful practices may be the answer. Some of us recently attended a conference at which Paul Tough was the keynote speaker. One presenter, Jenny Rocca, came from the Penn Mindfulness Center and taught us simple activities to try with our traumatized kids. She should know – she works with foster children in Philadelphia. One practice was simply to hold a string, one end in each hand – and with the inhalation stretch the string to its full length, with exhalation bring the hands together. Repeat. Another practice is to name whatever emotion you are feeling – including the teachers! She gave an example, “OK as I stand up here looking around the room I see 5 heads down – I feel my palms start to sweat and my heart beating fast, and I know that what’s I feel when I am getting angry. We have some work to get done. I need you to sit up and pay attention.” Wow.

This is the kind of information that teachers need, and what I will be working on to provide. Cool, right?

P.S. we will be building our garden out in front of the Peace house this coming Saturday, April 27th. Feel free to stop by and lend a hand if you are anywhere near the neighborhood!!


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