Healing the Heart – Yoga for At-Risk Teenage Girls

“I usually see things black and white. But after I do yoga I feel like a new person and I look at things in new ways. I see there is more than just yes or no, more than one choice, more than one path. I like this idea because so far the path I’ve chosen hasn’t been great. I’m ready for a new one.”— AYP Participant

A nurse practitioner by training, yoga teacher Mary Lynn Fitton developed the Art of Yoga Project (AYP) to help traumatized and at-risk teenage girls heal on a deeper, more holistic level and prepare them for a more positive future. Today, AYP serves over 500 at-risk and exploited teen girls annually in juvenile detention centers and aftercare treatment sites in three San Francisco Bay Area counties.

The cornerstone of the Art of Yoga Project is the Yoga & Creative Arts Curriculum, a year-round course that combines health education, character development, yoga, meditation, and creative arts. Its central goal is to help girls learn “self-awareness, self-respect, and self-control so that they can ultimately make better choices and be good to themselves and others.” Available nationwide, the Yoga and Creative Arts Curriculum is currently employed by 24 affiliate programs in 10 states.

The teen girls that AYP serves are coping with a legacy of intergenerational abuse and neglect, mental health problems, gang involvement, lack of educational opportunity, and poverty. Many have been victims of sex trafficking. Based on her extensive experience, Mary Lynn believes that it’s critical to utilize a gender-responsive approach when teaching yoga to such traumatized and at-risk populations. In this interview with yoga teacher Carol Horton, author of Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, Mary Lynn shares the inspiration behind The Art of Yoga Project and explores her views on the vitally important, but rarely discussed issue of teaching gender-responsive yoga.

Carol: How did you first get into yoga?

Mary Lynn: I started yoga in my mid-20s, when I was really much more of an athlete, working hard on running and triathlons. On my mat, I found a connection to my deeper self that was very profound. I also started to gain awareness of my inner voice, which, I discovered, wasn’t kind at all. I finally realized that I had been using sports as a way of running away from my own body and my own issues.

This felt kind of tragic. I’d often weep through my practice. But over time, I learned to nurture myself, rather than always having to push so hard. Through yoga, I developed a truly healing relationship between my self and my body.

Carol: What made you want to teach yoga to at-risk teen girls?

Mary Lynn: In my work as a nurse practitioner, I saw many young women with anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Many had core feelings of low self-worth, and even self-loathing. They’d regularly do things that they’d later regret—for example, one-night stands that made them feel really bad afterward.

I felt that yoga could help them with the deeper issues they were struggling with—stuff that I couldn’t get into with my regular nursing practice. But it was the early 1990s, and at that time, yoga was still totally marginal.

I started teaching yoga in the inner city anyway. I wanted to make sure that the practice got to everyone who needed it most. Today, that’s in line with the mission of the Yoga Service Council: to make sure that yoga is equally available to all. 

Carol: What does the term “gender-responsive” mean?

Mary Lynn: The term “gender-responsive” comes out of work in the criminal justice system. As more and more girls and women started coming in, it became clear that existing programs and policies had been designed for men. And making them appropriate for women involved much more than just having the same thing for women only. There’s a well-known saying, “you can’t just paint it pink.” Gender responsiveness means comprehensively addressing the needs, issues, and concerns of a specific gender group.

Carol: A lot of people in the yoga community believe that yoga transcends gender. Does a commitment to teaching yoga in a gender-responsive manner contradict that.

Mary Lynn: I agree that ultimately, yoga is beyond gender. And in the best circumstances, in which you have a group of healthy individuals coming together and accepting difference, males and females can learn and practice together. Unity is definitely the spirit of yoga. But the reality is that many of our populations have been traumatized in ways that make gender-responsive yoga a necessity.

Male yoga teachers can easily trigger girls and women who have been sexually traumatized by men. For example, just hearing a male voice telling them to “relax” could be re-traumatizing, as that’s a command often issued by sexual predators. With same gender teachers, there’s less risk of that happening.

Carol: Do the same gender considerations apply when teaching younger children?

Mary Lynn: I teach yoga in elementary schools with boys and girls together. With young kids, it can work. But I think that it would be amazing to mandate separate classes for boys and girls. That way, boys wouldn’t be coming to classes dominated by females. They wouldn’t feel that “yoga is for girls.”

I also believe that it would be incredibly powerful to have men teaching boys. They would be able to speak to issues that matter to them in ways that females can’t.

Once kids get into the teen years, hormones are so central to everything they do that it’s better to separate by gender. It’s kinder. It’s less distracting. They’re too young to have their Brahmacharya figured out.

Carol: That sounds like it would be true for teens in general. How is teaching yoga to at-risk, traumatized, and exploited youth different?

Mary Lynn: It’s important to understand that the ways in which trauma is experienced and processed in these populations is usually gendered. Generally speaking, boys are traumatized by someone that they don’t personally know very well. They’re dealing with gangs and street fighting. For girls, it’s quite different. Typically, they’re traumatized by someone they’re close to—often someone that they say “I love you” to a lot.

Teen boys and girls, like adult men and women, typically respond to trauma in different ways. There are underlying biological and psychosocial differences. Males tend to externalize their reactions, with anger, fighting, and so on. Females tend to internalize, and beat themselves up on the inside. This manifests as depression, self-mutilation (like cutting), and other mental health disorders.

Carol: Do you think that teaching yoga in a gender-responsive way has any relevance to the mainstream yoga studio population?

Mary Lynn: We need to get real. It’s a distraction when we’re looking at each other’s bodies. Of course, it’s true that part of the practice can be working to stay focused when you’re feeling attracted to someone else. But why not also have gender-specific classes?

I think it would be amazing to have gender-responsive classes that allow men and women to explore their particular concerns and experiences. For women, being able to talk about their cycles and related issues would be meaningful. To offer childcare would be fantastic.

And what if men taught men, and there was real counsel? What if they came together in circle and talked about issues of strength, power, and control in the ways that are particular to men? What if they went on from there to teach boys how to be powerful, right-thinking men? What if boys had time, space, and leadership dedicated to helping them explore the crucial issue of: What does it mean to be a man?

It would also be good to bring male and female groups together and have unity, as well as times consciously dedicated to exploring male-female issues.

While some of this is going on now, it’s not enough. In particular, there’s not enough for men being offered.

Carol: I hear a lot of talk in yoga circles about the “divine feminine.” Does that phrase mean anything to you?

Mary Lynn: I definitely think that girls and women need to connect to their divine feminine—just as boys and men need to connect with their divine masculine.

At AYP, we’re helping the teens we work with tap into the sacred feminine. Generally, they don’t like being female. They think it’s better to be male, as men run the gangs and have power. We want to help them connect to what’s good about being a girl—to honor their femininity, and cultivate femininity at its best.

The divine feminine is about being open, receptive, creative, and intuitive. It involves listening, wisdom, internal power, and unconditional love and acceptance. It means taking the lead in our culture in manifesting love, and teaching others how to love. In AYP, we practice loving the girls, and teaching them to love themselves.

It’s important to recognize that feminine energy also has its negative side. Females specialize in relational aggression, including manipulation, gossip and criticism of the masculine.

Actualizing the divine feminine should not exclude men or be negative toward men. It is important to take that responsibility. That’s not to say that we don’t talk about men—in AYP, we talk about men, sex and relationships a lot. But we do so in a way that respects the divine masculine too.

Carol: What’s most needed in the yoga world today in terms of gender-responsiveness?

Mary Lynn: I’d like to call men to step up and go into juvenile detention centers and work with at-risk boys. Teen boys need men to teach them. Right now, most yoga teachers are women. Male yoga teachers should be actively recruited. We need more men on the covers of yoga magazines. Correcting the gender imbalance in yoga could only help our culture.

We need more gay and lesbian yoga teachers. We have lesbian teachers at AYP, and it’s important to our program. But many gay male youth have also been sexually trafficked, and need help processing their trauma. Gay male teachers could play an important role in that regard.

We also need more professionals involved in yoga service. We need people who understand the world of public policy, fundraising, organizational development, and business. Our Executive Director at AYP, Lisa Pedersen, used to be a Vice President at a large high-tech company. The two of us together are a great mix. In order to have sustainability, we need to have professional expertise supporting yoga service. Otherwise, we won’t be able to build organizations that last.

To learn more about the Art of Yoga Project, you can access their website by clicking here. An earlier version of this interview was originally published on elephant journal, August 1, 2012.

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at carolhortonphd.com.

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