One day in middle school yoga class, something profound happened.
During roll call, I noticed a sixth grade student, new to the school, not occupying his yoga mat. Instead, he was hunched down on the floor between two tall filing cabinets. “Are you hurt?” I asked. He shook his head “No,” without looking up. I finished roll call quickly and asked students to assume child’s pose. I walked over to check out the situation.
“Are you okay, Jonas?” I asked. The teary-eyed, sanguine child peered up at me and between sniffles said, “No, not really.” I asked him if he wanted to talk about it or if he just needed some time to himself. He nodded yes.
The class began. I kept the tone quiet and contemplative. Once everyone was focused and centered, I offered students a few choices of partner yoga postures they were already familiar with and let them know they had 5 minutes to practice together. I checked back in with Jonas.
“How are you feeling?”
“Do you want to let me know what you are sad about?”
“Oh, are you having some conflict with students?”
“Yeah, everybody has me wrong.”
“What happened, Jonas?”
“At lunch, a bunch of kids started harassing me and calling me a p#$%^.” (We’ve edited out the slur for the purposes of this blog entry.)
“I’m so sorry. Do you have any idea what is going on with them?
“I stood up for a girl they were messing with yesterday and now they are picking on me. They said I’m too little to get anybody’s back.”
“Oh, well that’s certainly not true. Are any of those kids in this classroom right now?”
“Yeah,’ he said, hugging his knees to his chest, burying his head into his arms, crying.
His sobs caught the attention of several nearby students. I asked everyone to go back to their own mats and take child’s pose again. While students shuffled through the room, one brave girl, Kya, brisked over to me and said, “I know why he’s crying.”
She explained that a group of her friends were calling him names and saying mean things in front of lots of other students. Jonas was aware of our conversation and motioned for me to come over.
“That’s one of them,” he said.
I asked if he wanted to speak with Kya. He said yes.
As soon as Kya was near Jonas, he burst out and loudly asked, “Why do stand by and laugh while your so-called friends treat me like that?”
Kya lowered her head and said she was sorry.
At this point, the 20 other students were looking at Kya and Jonas. “Would it be okay with you both if we sit in circle and try to find some resolution to this?”
Both students nodded affirmatively.
It’s important to note here that these students attend a school where they are already accustomed to circle time using the Way of Counsel. This time, we used partner yoga as our framework for unpacking some of the issues at play in this situation, as well as explore solutions.
First, students sat back to back with a partner, bringing their attention to their breathing. I instructed students to try and feel their partners’ breathing rhythms and simply to acknowledge the other person as a human being with feelings. I asked students to remember that just because we do not understand a person, that doesn’t mean they are wrong. We can always find something in common with every other human being. Right now, we were focusing on something each and every one of us need: breathe.
We sat, focusing on our inhales and exhales for 5 or so minutes. I asked students to close their eyes while I posed a few questions and to respond by turning their palms upwards on their knees for “yes” and downwards for “no.”
“Have you ever been involved in bullying at school? Either as the one being bullied, the bully, a stander-by or an ally.” All but one student turned their palms up. Honestly, I am not sure that student understood the question since she had just immigrated from Tibet and was only beginning to learn English.
Next question, “Do you feel you have the skills necessary to take a stand for someone being bullied?” Mixed hand. Most students indicated “no.” Some said “yes.” Several said “yes” with one hand and “no” with the other.
For the final question, I asked students to keep their answers to themselves for now. “What do you think we can do as a school community to make sure everyone feels safe here?”
Now we moved into a standing partner posture wherein students face each other, holding hands. Then, bending their knees, they lean their weight back as if sitting in a chair. This partner pose requires a great deal of trust since students are relying on their partners to hold them up. If one partner lets go, the other will certainly fall. This pose also requires myself as the teacher to fully trust the innate goodness of my students. All of this granted trust, from teacher to student, from peer to peer, creates a tangible, embodied sense of support. Period. NO matter what has happened in the past or what may occur in the future, at that present moment, there exists a classroom of adolescents fully supporting each other; physically, mentally, socially and emotionally.
After practicing this partner pose several times; articulating alignment, honing attention to breath, we enter a short, but powerful discussion while still standing. We talk about what it means to support our peers. We talk through several related themes: the nobility of supporting someone even if you don’t actually like them, our shared responsibility for each other’s safety, and the detriments involved with letting someone fall. In adolescence, these questions are intriguing, provocative, right on point with their inherent fears, anxieties and hopes. Perhaps this is one reason we see so many young people trying on the behaviors we call “bully.” Teens want to know where their power lives.
Partner yoga poses give teens a keyhole into their real source of power. They learn how powerful it is to support their peers and to take a stand for each other. They cultivate compassion and empathy by entering relationships with peers where, for brief moments, the stakes are high, but there is no competition. In other words, teens learn to see the other person as a living, breathing, feeling being and to care for their safety and well-being. These are the barest necessities of accomplishing partner yoga poses. The enrichment deepens from there and extends far beyond the practice session. As one teen student put it, “When we practice yoga together, we make a bond that sticks outside of the yoga room. We are just more connected.”
The bond and connection this student speaks of is exactly what we need to help forge between adolescents if we want to alleviate bullying. Both the bullies and the bullied and everyone standing by feel alienated, alone, and lack a sense of belonging. We can talk with teens until we are blue in the face about how ineffective bullying is to create lasting feelings of power and security, or we can give them an embodied experience of connection with their peers.