Teacher Reflections: Mary Gillen
Blog posts from our Little Flower Family
I’ve been teaching yoga to pregnant teens at a youth correctional facility in the NY since May. Each week I drive white-knuckled, fighting 18-wheelers for a lane, to what seems like the farthest corner of the city. I pass small houses and corporate compounds, arriving at a non-descript brick building with cinderblock walls and moldy industrial carpeting. Compared to my Park Slope, Brooklyn neighborhood and the homes of my private clients on the upper west side of Manhattan, this place feels like the end of the earth. It certainly doesn’t scream yoga, but rather it seems to whisper, “help.” Girls are locked up at the age of 14, 15, 16; some of them for felonies and a few of them while pregnant. I find myself wondering if the baby daddies are involved romantically or if these pregnancies are related to the shocking fact that 85 percent (according to a staff member) of the inmate population has been arrested for prostitution.
My heart aches for these girls, as I remember my own teenage problems (breaking up with my first love, fighting with my best friend, the decline of my father’s health and my parents’ marriage), which seemed insurmountable at the time. And yet these girls are on the brink of single motherhood, and with criminal records to boot. What can my suburban upbringing and esoteric yoga teachings do for them? A lot, as it turns out. But I recently found myself wanting to give more, something tangible. I know that asana, pranayama and meditation are real, are tangible. And that is my primary purpose for being there, to teach these very important coping tools. But I also know that when you’re a teenager you care about how you look and you want stuff. And these girls aren’t shy about asking. It started with nail polish, which I happily brought for them. Then they wanted more colors and nail polish remover. Okay, I thought, no harm done. But I really wanted to give them something to hold onto through the rest of the week, something that might inspire them to practice yoga on their own. So I gave them yoga mats to keep. They were grateful, if skeptical. One even asked, “Why you giving us all this stuff?” to which I replied, simply, that I wanted to. However, her question lingered in my mind, and would come up again later in a big way.
I’m not especially crafty, but I happen to love making eye pillows. So I decided to make some for the girls. They told me their favorite colors, and I went on the hunt for fabric I thought they would like. I enjoyed the process of stitching them together and filling them with organic flaxseeds and crushed lavender flowers. I stayed up late the night before my next session at OCFS, stitching until my eyes hurt and my neck ached. The next day I proudly handed them over, pleased with my creations, and with myself. One of the girls examined hers and I could see the barely-veiled disappointment on her face. My heart sank. And I found myself feeling annoyed with her. How could she not love this beautiful, cream-colored satin eye pillow? How ungrateful! Didn’t she know how long it took me to make that? Of course, I said none of this, and told her I would make her another one, in a color she would like better. She examined it again, and then said, “No, I like it. I should practice my gratitude.” I was shocked. Were these her words? Or were they the words of my predecessor, Nicole, another yoga teacher whose lessons were now seeping into the girls’ consciousness? Either way, I was impressed with her self-awareness and the humility it took to correct her initial response. But unfortunately, hers was a normal reaction. We’ve all been raised in a culture that encourages us to believe that we are owed everything; that less is never more and more is never enough.
Back at home that night it dawned upon me that maybe I should examine my intentions for giving these gifts. Why was I giving them “all this stuff?” Was I expecting praise and adoration from these girls? Did I think they would jump up and down and hug me? Shouldn’t the act of giving have been a selfless and complete experience in and of itself? Much like my student that day, I suddenly felt ashamed of my own reaction. We can’t expect others to share the same experience or feelings as we do. In fact, it’s unfair and selfishly motivated to do so. This is especially true of children and teenagers. To recall one especially relevant concept I learned during my Little Flower kids’ teacher training, Jennifer said that we must “meet children where they are.” From that place of acceptance, they then have the ability to grow and bloom into complete, authentic and beautiful selves. I know in my heart that I was trying to do something nice for them and that’s all that matters, not whether they like the actual pillows or if they would have picked out that particular fabric.
These girls will eventually be released from OCFS, reunited with family and friends and forced to live in the real world. No longer as teenagers, but as adults, as mothers to newborns. The pressure is only going to mount for them. And my sincere hope is they will remember their yoga and look to healthier means of coping with stress and disappointment. Perhaps they will start to make choices that will lead them down new paths, far away from locked doors. Yoga can be a key to unlock the doors of our own prisons, physical and mental. But we have to practice. We might make mistakes. We might end up back where we started. But we can always return to our breath and our yoga and to small kindnesses. I am grateful to these girls for holding up a mirror for me to see myself and to remind me to practice my yoga too. I don’t return to Staten Island every week just to teach these girls. They also teach me.