02/07/2015 02:00 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2015

Mindfulness in the City

I'm a teacher with a non-profit organization that brings mindfulness-based exercises to at-risk, incarcerated or court-involved youth and their support staff. Sounds heavy, doesn't it? It is. It's radical. Mindfulness? What the heck is that? Mindfulness is the practice of being aware. It is the difference, as I tell my students, between giving yourself a choice as to how to respond vs. reacting out of blind habit. And, in some cases it is the difference between raising a hand to someone and simply walking away. It is also a gift -- to ourselves and the people around us to what is truly happening now.

I travel throughout New York City to alternate learning centers' "suspension schools," second-chance or transfer high schools and residential incarceration sites. The one thing these kids and young adults have in common with each other is that they are suffering. The one thing they have in common with all of us is that we are all suffering. Their situation, however, is made far worse by vast socio-economic differences between their communities -- typically black, Latino, and/or immigrant and others, namely white, middle class communities. They simply are not afforded the same standards of care and support and are usually raised in single-parent households in which that one parent is working two or three jobs. Sometimes, there is no parent. There might be a grandparent or aunts and uncles and sometimes, there is no one and they are in foster care.

I usually begin a class by asking them to sit well so they may understand the connection between their mind and their bodies and that if they slump over, their posture may be telling them something that may or may not be true in the present moment, i.e., "I'm tired. I'm shy. I don't care." The posture becomes an ingrained habit as much as their thoughts do and each affects the other. I ask them to simply be aware. Are you sitting this way out of choice? And then I ask them to sit as though they were a king or queen. I remind them that no one gives them dignity. Dignity is what we give to ourselves. And to the world by how we present ourselves. They usually sit straighter at this but then slowly, slowly the slump takes over. This is normal. Even for adults. I point out that anything we do is information about what is going on with us. Perhaps our hips are tight, or are hamstrings are and this affects the spine. Or, we've been treated badly most of our lives and slumping over is a reflection of internalizing the external. Everything affects everything else but once we have knowledge we can make change. We can change ourselves.

I never ask them what they did to land them where they are. Never.

One day, when I was teaching in a residential incarceration site in East New York, which happened to be a long ago convent but now has bars and alarms across every window and door, I brought up the concept of "masks." The masks we wear either as part of our multi-faceted identities, i.e., the "teacher" mask, the "mother" mask, the "student" mask, the "daughter," "athlete," "artist," "scientist," "rapper" and so on. I explained that we each do this to function in the world and sometimes we put on masks out of necessity, to protect ourselves -- the "tough" mask, the "bully" mask, the "brave" mask or the "I don't give a shit" mask but that underneath this I believed was our True selves. And that each and every one of us is a good person who wants to be loved and to love. I asked them to think about what they knew to be deeply true about themselves as I began to lead them in yoga postures. I began with myself -- "I care deeply about this world and everyone in it. This is my true self."

Kayla*, 15, who was always sweet and open to finding calmness and given the abuse she experienced of which I was later told by a social worker, replied -- "I'm kind." I looked around at each of them and smiled as we inhaled and exhaled, moving through seated poses, lengthening the spine, opening the chest. It was right about this moment that Liberia*, aka LiLi, only 14 years old but powerfully built, began to storm around the room stomping as she said - "Fuck this shit. Fuck this shit. Fuck this shit." I watched her move through the room then settle down into a couch in a corner. I didn't ignore her but I simply watched and waited and continued. As we moved along some of the girls rang out with, "I'm kind, too." Or, "I love people." Or, "I protect people." Eventually as I began to instruct headstands LiLi became very interested. She joined us on the mats, in the middle of the "family" room -- the confessional room off to the side, filled now with board games and books. At first she simply threw herself up in the air and came crashing down. "Let me help you." I invited. And, there, with just a little guidance LiLi held herself perfectly aloft upside down on her head while everyone applauded. When she came down she was beaming.

I smiled at her. "I think we just saw something true about you, Lili. You are strong and flexible."

I will never forget the look she gave me when she bashfully grinned and nodded. She was seen. Not for the countless ways she was told she was wrong or acted out (because of not being seen) but in allowing herself to connect to the group she connected to herself. To her true self.

This is radical, indeed.

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of minors.