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At age 16, Shelly Smith (not her real name) started popping Ecstasy pills, had unprotected sex with guys, and “messed around” with gang members. Numerous times, she had brushes with the law. Her grades at Berkeley High usually hovered between Ds and Fs.
“My mom hated me,” said Kelley, now 19 and a student at Berkeley City College. “She was so disappointed in me.”
Smith said she couldn’t get any advice from her dad because he was constantly in and out of prison.
At Berkeley Tech, to which she transferred in her junior year, one of the elective classes Smith took was yoga, offered under the name of “Transformative Life Skills” (TLS) by the nonprofit institute, Niroga. The program is used to teach self-discipline and to help youths break the cycle of violence.
“It was one of the best things I did,” Smith said. She added that soon after starting the class, “I began to have yoga highs, which was a lot better than weed highs.”
From IT to Yoga
Niroga, a Sanskrit word that means absence of disease, was started five years ago in Berkeley by Bidyut K. Bose, a former IT professional. He had worked for many years in Silicon Valley before deciding to share his yoga skills fulltime with people he knew could benefit from them.
Niroga today runs classes all over the Bay Area for at-risk youth in juvenile halls, homeless shelters and group homes, and for students at schools in Oakland, Richmond and other cities. The TLS program is a “multi-modality intervention that includes yoga (poses), breathing and meditation,” Bose said.
He explained, “Children coming from inner-city schools have low self-control and are so traumatized they are not able to learn.” Bose, known to friends and colleagues simply as BK. Continued, “In our hurry to teach them we don’t first heal them.”
BK said findings by academic researchers indicate that low self-control is a significant risk factor for a broad range of personal and interpersonal problems. Additionally, research at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that “self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents.”
BK said that when the Richmond police chief found out about Niroga’s yoga program in his city’s schools, he was pleased. BK recalled, “He told me, ‘Increasing self-control on our streets is literally a matter of life and death.’” BK was recently awarded a Bay Area Regional Jefferson Award for his public service.
On a recent day at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center (ACJJC) in San Leandro, Calif., Erin Michelle Hill, a Niroga-trained teacher, is leading about a half-dozen teenage girls in a yoga class in Unit 6 – which houses some of the most emotionally-challenged youth.
At the entrance to Unit 6 is a sign that warns it is a pepper spray zone. While the average length of stay in juvenile hall is 21 days, “in this unit it is generally longer,” observed Yahru Baruti, a senior psychiatric social worker there.
“Imagine Your Breath”
As Hill gently leads the group from the boat pose to the locust pose to the eagle pose, she constantly reminds the students to connect with their breath.
“Imagine your breath is an ocean. When you inhale, the waves come toward you; when you exhale it moves away from you. You want to stay with the rise and fall of your breath,” she intoned.
One of the students starts humming out loud. The chatter of inmates outside the room distracts some of the students. Sensing this, Hill encourages them to pause in their practice and talk out their emotions.
“I feel sad,” said one student, leaning against an inclined bolster on her sticky mat. Another says she is tired, while a third declares that she feels “as irritated as when she walked into class.”
Hill continues to encourage. “Focus on things in your life you are grateful for,” she said. Eyes close and silence fills the room.
One hour and several yoga poses and breathing techniques later, the students put away their props and troop out. The worry lines that showed on their faces have been replaced by a tranquil look.
“I’ve been taking yoga classes every day since I came here seven months ago,” observed Beth (not her real name), a 16-year-old inmate. “It helps keep my mind focused on the positive. I will continue doing it even when I get out.”
“Now I can carry this positive mood outside the class for the rest of the day,” said Cynthia (not her real name), also 16. “It releases a lot in here,” she says, holding her hand to her heart. She too has decided to continue taking yoga classes after her release.
Probation officer Frank Lozano believes the TLS program is one of the best in Unit 6. “Those breathing techniques are particularly good,” he said. “When a kid gets really upset, we tell him to use his breath to overcome that emotion. And it works.”
Although the Alameda County does not track the rate of recidivism, “three out of four youth coming out of juvenile hall are going back,” BK said.
Back in 2008, with a $211,000 grant from The California Endowment, Niroga did an 18-month assessment of the impact the TLS program had on the young inmates.
“Using psychometric scales, we were able to show that it could lower stress and increase self-control,” BK said.
“We spend a lot of time and resources on the external environment, when there is a significant imbalance in the internal environment,” BK noted.
“In schools where we offer TLS, teachers are saying the tenor of their classes is changing. A little bit of this practice makes teaching more effective.”
Jenn Rader, executive director of El Cerrito High’s school-based health center, James Morehouse Project, agrees. Niroga took its program to El Cerrito High a couple of years ago and provided TLS training to some of its teachers.
“Teachers found that in a classroom where there’s disruptive behavior, even doing a five-minute watching-the-breath intervention, allowed classroom instruction to emerge front and center,” she said.
Niroga, whose annual operating budget is $600,000, currently conducts 100 classes across the Bay Area, reaching around 2,000 people a week. Since its inception, some 200 teachers have been trained to impart TLS. Many of the teachers are black or Latino — one of Niroga’s goals is to make the yoga-teacher pool in the Bay Area less white.
Most access the training through Niroga’s Integral Health Fellowship program, funded by the Alameda County Public Health Department and the Yoga Dana Foundation. Fellows pay for their training with a hundred volunteer teaching hours in the community.
“But for yoga, I would be tripping now,” said Smith, who is African American.
“When I was 16, I didn’t think about being 18,” she said. “Now I am thinking of majoring in kinesiology and then becoming a yoga therapist.”
This article first appeared in New America Media.