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Yoga and Breathing Helps Juveniles Reflect on Their Actions

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At Crossroads, the metallic locked juvenile detention center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Bart van Melik, 34, a slim Dutchman with a receding hairline, prepares for his weekly yoga class. He unrolls his 15 blue yoga mats while greeting the warden, Casandra Washington, and her adolescent girls. The center houses juvenile delinquents and juvenile offenders between the ages of 10 and 16, who are in temporary custody until the resolution of their court cases.

About 12 girls dressed in blue overalls who have just returned from class lay aimlessly in a cavernous hall, housing sparse furniture in the middle. Some girls sit on chairs playing cards while another combs her friend's hair on the floor. It takes the warden about five tries to get the girls to focus and come towards the mats. Those who refuse are ordered into their individual locked bedrooms.

The girls show little interest, but slowly about 11 of them participate. (One left for an appointment.) Melik gets the girls to practice a minute of quiet breathing by sounding a Buddhist bell, but Chianti, a boisterous, chubby girl with straight hair, insists on truncating this meditative mood by chatting, picking at her belly button or just walking around. Melik ignores her and begins a discussion on the week's theme, "distraction."

"What distracted you today from following your breath?" he asks the group.

"What distracts me is myself," Chianti replies. "My medicines make me go to sleep," she adds.

"I like fighting rather than being bored," another girl replies.

"I like working rather than being bored," says Lynette, a petite young woman with curly black hair.

According to New York City's Administration for Children's Services, there were 4,869 adolescents between the ages of 10 to 17 admitted into detention centers in the last year. Fifty percent had previous admissions. The average daily cost to the American taxpayer per juvenile is $622, about six times the cost of a Manhattan private school education. Many come from communities with high poverty rates, are racial minorities, and are at risk for substance abuse, unemployment, gang involvement and sexual trafficking.

Melik, a mild mannered teacher, works for the Lineage Project -- a non-profit organization that provides physical, emotional and mental wellness training to at-risk and incarcerated youth aged 10 to 21. Founded on the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, Lineage uses awareness-based practices such as yoga, breathing and meditation -- practical, simple tools that adolescents can use even after attending just one class. Beth Navon, executive director of Lineage, believes these practices help decrease anxiety, boost self-esteem and strengthen the ability to control impulses. "The young person who can take a moment to step back and breathe has an opportunity to think twice about an action towards something or someone that may have serious consequences," says Navon.

After a short discussion on "why we get distracted," Melik leads the the girls in yoga. They begin with sun salutation, a pose that takes the body through a whole range of motions, and then proceed into various other poses. Then the girls lie on their mats and with Melik's help, focus on different parts of their bodies like the belly, arms and legs while noticing their breath. He ends the session asking the girls to picture someone they really like and to wish something nice for that person. At every stage, Melik monitors their responses asking, "How do you feel? What emotion do you have right now?" He gives the kids free rein to voice whatever they feel at the moment. One girl says, "When I was lying down, I felt scared, I saw red spots on the ceiling."

The session with girls is followed by one a flight down in the boys' living quarters. Lugging the yoga mats in a large white sack, Melik enters the space, which is pulsating with hip-hop by Ginuwine. One boy in tan overalls, oblivious to his surroundings, lies sleeping on the floor in the middle of the room, his shoes strewn about two feet away. Another offers an explanation, "He's used to taking hard drugs and the medication given does not suit him."

Accustomed to such behaviors and ignoring the sleeping boy, Melik begins his class with a minute of deep breathing at the sound of the Buddhist bell. On the walls are portrait drawings of Jesus, the cross and the World Trade Center, under which is written, "You will be missed."

This week, only three boys and their warden attend; the others are either in counseling or in treatment. Often wardens participate; they too enjoy the session, says Melik. The boys giggle and tease each other and Melik, saying he looks like Shaggy in the movie Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins.

Melik laughs this off and talks about Phil Jackson, the basketball legend whose meditative practice helped the Chicago Bulls win three NBA championships. He then proceeds to lead the boys in a short breathing exercise, where they take five long silent breaths. One boy says the exercise calms him.

Melik visits Crossroads weekly and claims that some inmates have been there for a full year. One week, when the discussion was about "Before you explode, what can you think about to calm yourself down?" The warden said, "My mother. The thought of her face relaxes me." One youth added, "The people who raised me said, 'When someone is pushing your buttons, we want to see blood.' So instead of thinking of my parents, I will think of you, Bart."

In summer, Melik runs an intensive program -- one hour daily sessions for one week -- when he sees more behavioral changes. Last summer, a girl bathed in tattoos said she could not participate on the first day because of a court date.

"She was extremely scared to confront the judge because he could incarcerate her," says Melik. "But I encouraged her to feel what the fear felt like, to really feel it."

The girl came back after two days and reported, "Bart, I did what you taught me, I breathed and watched my fear. I was able to focus and I heard what the judge said, what I needed to do to change. Previous times, I did not know what he said. But this time, the judge said he saw someone very different standing before him."

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