Teaching Yoga to Teens: Connection Over Content

“One of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever been through” is how I have been describing my recent two-week role as a full-time yoga teacher to 30 middle schoolers at a school in El Cerrito. I have taught many classrooms and after school programs to teens and young people before, but this was my first time managing a classroom from 9:00–3:00pm each day to bring these students not only yoga, but a well-rounded wellness education. For these two weeks I was a “Balanced Living” teacher with RISE Yoga for Youth, a nonprofit that brings yoga into schools across the Bay Area.

As a yoga teacher entering the school environment it’s tempting to think that you will be their “cool” teacher who gets to remain calm and peaceful and isn’t as concerned with how to react when someone is talking or saying something inappropriate. But, when managing the class as opposed to being a guest teacher, I knew this wasn’t going to be true, I knew this would be a challenging experience.

I walked into the first day of class with a firm presence and despite this being a two-week elective that was Pass/Fail, I chose to give them the syllabus which included what they would have to do to pass the class. It wasn’t long until I started receiving some serious resistance from certain students who didn’t want to stop talking to their friends or didn’t want to stop using their phone in class. These were challenging moments.

If I am being honest, the first day I came home in complete shock. The second day I realized that my nerves were completely shot and I acknowledged to myself that I was slightly traumatized by the talking back, the continual outbursts, the inappropriate comments to fellow students, the intense stares of attitude, and the constant challenge of authority.

I tried hard to remember middle school so that I could understand where they were coming from when they were in my classes. I remember I loved expressing my opinions. I remember the intensity of making new friends and I remember the often shifting social relationships. I remember the teachers I liked and respected and the teachers whose classes I wasn’t so well-behaved in. My really chill science teachers came to mind — they were so soft in the classroom, but we learned a lot. One of the difficult parts was remembering the more intense parts, too, which came flooding back as I remembered this time period. Being a kid is fun and it can also be really intense and dramatic, especially when you think about the family lives that students are navigating. I tried hard to remember this all and constantly reminded myself that the students were young people who deserved respect.

Thankfully I was at a really wonderful school that taught me about how to respect these young people. The school I was teaching at has a “restorative justice” model that attempts to support students rather than penalize them. I learned so much about giving students choices and making them realize the impact of their actions rather than trying to “discipline” them. The school would use conversations and understanding one another over lecturing. It was a process that took time and I commend them for this.

The most challenging part for me in this experience was that I was so used to teaching adults who would listen and ask questions and have conversations with me about the topics I was presenting in classes or workshops. It was frustrating to have so much that I was excited to teach the students to support them in their everyday life, but I was unable to because of the behavioral issues that were arising. The dynamics in a middle school felt contrary to reason as these middle schoolers lived in a very different mini-society while in school than the one I was used to being in.

The turning point came for me early on when two mentor teachers/administrators at the school suggested infusing a little laughter and connection into my teaching. I was scared to condone any distracting behavior I didn’t want in the classroom, but I knew their advice was from years of experience and so I finally started to lighten up — a recurring lesson in my life that can be really useful at times.

I scrapped one of my lesson plans and we formed a circle to do a laughing exercise where we go around the room and pretend to laugh to see the effects that the body can have on the mind. When presenting the exercise I told them it was very serious that we form a circle and preceded to give them the exercise of laughter. Seeing the students be silly and giggle was a breakthrough for me. These were good kids who deserved to be kids and I made sure to infuse a lot more silly ice-breaker games into the remaining classes.

The remainder of the week I learned how to accept certain students for who they were. Some students did have trouble focusing in class and I had to help them stay focused instead of ask them to go downstairs. The students warmed up to me and I to them in a way that we were both able to work together in the classroom to support the learning for the day.

This was when I realized that teaching teens is all about the connection rather than the content. Early on I was approaching them like high schoolers and adults. But I quickly realized that they were at a unique age that was ripe for silly games that I had brushed off as too young for their age group. They are truly social creatures at this age and they enjoyed any chance to interact with one another. I also learned that many of their classroom behaviors need support rather than admonishment. They are kids and they are in need of healing and learning about their behaviors and how to manage them.

The other thing I learned from this experience was how in the face of an intense experience I had to take a deep breathe each morning and approach the each day as a fresh start. As I drove to El Cerritto I would put on music and I would ask myself: why am I doing this? I had to keep asking myself my purpose in teaching because I had the very real fear that the day could be full of behaviors in the classroom that would prevent my lesson plan from being taught . When I would ask myself this it helped me distill the lesson I wanted to convey that day down to the basics so that I could incorporate it into the classroom in a way that was connected to the energy of the moment.

One particular morning I was doing this exercise of driving to work, connecting to my purpose, and asking myself despite my lesson plan what was the most important lesson for the day. The previous day had been rough. My morning group had brought rubber bands to class. Rubber bands were being flung throughout the class and as soon as we’d confiscate ten they’d have twenty more. It was a downer of a day to say the least. But I chose to embrace the new day and start fresh, I wasn’t going to expect them to do the same today. I notified my administrator of the problem, but told her that I would give the group a fresh start. And the class that day actually turned out to be a great class. Everything was going smoothly until one young girl walked into the classroom after a difficult conversation with an administrator and she just couldn’t handle being in class. She blew up in class and I had to send her down to the office and the entire class was in an uproar. I started to transition us to the resting portion of class — what we as adults know as Savasana. It always took about ten minutes for them to stop fidgeting and talking to their friends but they would always eventually fully embrace and enjoy the restful time they were given each day.

On this particular day — post rubber-band incident and post uproar where I was certain it would be an overall class anarchy — I decided to remind them why I was there to teach. It was important for me to share this because I didn’t want to be in a tense relationship with them, I wasn’t there just to “manage” the classroom, I was there to teach them about how to live a balanced life. And so while they were in Savasana, from a very real and intense place I told them why I was there.

“I am here,” I told them, “not because I want to send you to the downstairs office.” “I am here,” I reminded them, “because I know in my heart to be true that you are perfect. I know in my heart to be true that you play a small, but very important role in this whole entire universe. And, I know in my heart to be true that your community, your friends, and your family are very lucky to have you.”

It was my attempt at returning to love and kindness. It was my attempt to at least get one important message across for the day.

Teaching and managing a classroom of 30 13-year-olds reminded me that young people have a huge amount of energy. At times it seems to be so much energy that they aren’t able to contain it if they tried! I learned quickly that the path to connection with these young people was not only strict boundaries in the classroom, but also it was about lightening up and laughing with them. It was about asking rather than telling. And it’s about me as a teacher distilling my lesson down each day so that I knew in some way, it would come across. Overall, teaching this group of teens taught me about connection over content. Knowing the lesson plan and knowing how to make it accessible are two very different things.

Lots of gratitude to each and every one of my students who doubled as my teachers. Lots of gratitude to middle school teachers, administrators and parents everywhere who put all the love they have into this work of raising good kids. Lots and love and gratitude to Erin Lila Wilson who taught me how to teach teens and has created a wonderful curriculum and community of teachers through her nonprofit RISE Yoga for Youth.

Sari Gelzer Stankowski is a yoga teacher in the Bay Area offering yoga, meditation and wellness classes to youth and adults. Learn more about yoga with sari at her website or like her on facebook.

Sari Stankowski

Sari Gelzer is a yoga teacher and online media consultant based in San Francisco, CA.