By Colin Lieu
November 29, 2018
What I’ve Learned From Teaching Yoga In The South Bronx
Dwarfed by the towering NYCHA buildings and drowned out by the cross-street traffic on 163rd street, a community of Bronx-born pre-kindergarteners inhale and exhale slowly for a count of three seconds. The banging of blocks and the drama of dress-up fade into the distance — even if just for a few minutes — as 4-year-olds lay in stillness. We use our super listening powers to hear sounds:from within the classroom, outside the classroom and within the building; outside the building; inside our bodies.
The collective intimacy of watching 20 young torsos rise and fall to a slow breath fills the air with a vulnerability that’s somehow sucked away as these black and brown bodies grow up. Somewhere along the path to adulthood — yet well before that destination — these young people will come to represent danger, not dimples.
It hit me. For some populations, yoga and meditation isn’t crunchy granola fund and games. It’s self-preservation. It’s survival. How can a child of color maintain a sense of stillness, calm and contentment — even in the midst of being accused of groping women and violating laws for selling water?
I started to find and answers to this question in my teachings of yoga and mindfulness to young people and adults in the South Bronx. This is what I’ve learned.
1. Checking implicit bias is never-ending
In my weekly community yoga class for adults in the South Bronx, the median demographics are approximately: early 40s in age, size 20, 220 lbs. At first, I wondered, “What do I need to change from a ‘normal’ yoga class for this population?” Hours of watching YouTube videos of larger bodies do yoga and rereading yoga textbooks led me to a simple answer: nothing. One of the main components of cultural competency is maintaining high expectations regardless of the population one serves. Older and larger bodies may need more time or yoga props, but the expectation and ambition is the same. Body-positive yoga activists like Jessamyn Stanley prove this.
No documentary, no workshop and no amount of diverse friends can fully rid one of implicit bias. Mine slapped me across the face when one woman told me she was going to Omega Institute, a mega yoga retreat in upstate New York. “Oh wow, how exciting. Is it your first time?” I asked. “No. I’ve been going for years.” It was very obvious why my subconscious did not process that someone like her could be a regular at Omega Institute.
There’s a fine line between being accommodating and prejudice.
2. Carers’ Compassion Fatigue
Helping others is one thing. Taken to the extreme, the tension created by the preoccupation with those in suffering can bring about a secondary traumatic stress for the helper. Compassion fatigue is caring without an off switch. It’s caring without self-care. Destructive behaviors such as isolation, apathy and bottled up emotions can surface.
That’s what I often see teaching yoga at daycare centers in the South Bronx. The head teachers live and work in the community. They’ve
walked in the shoes of the students they teach and tiptoe a tightrope of understanding the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) their students have experienced versus internalizing them. ***behavior The strong black woman is a cultural icon born of black women’s resilience in the face of systemic oppression that has dismantled families and caused economic instability. They’re self-sufficient and self-sacrificing. But they’re as stressed as they are strong.
Caring for others, especially those who you can see yourself in is an additional layer and an imperative to care for oneself.
3. What we need is usually within us
Self-help books, meditation apps and retreats. There’s a long list of external solutions we often seek to clear up our internal fog. In reality, what we’re searching for is already within in. The South Bronx kids I work with, as young as three, have shown me this.
For my children’s and adult classes alike, we practice a compassion meditation to remind us to be kinder to ourselves and that we’re all in the same boat: we’re all suffering in some way.
We repeat variations of the phrases:
May we be safe
May we be happy
May we be healthy
May we walk with ease
Colin Lieu is a yoga and mindfulness coach working in public schools and programs in Harlem and Bronx, New York.
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