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Teaching at risk children yoga and mindfulness has helped them find a sense of calm.
Teaching at risk children yoga and mindfulness has helped them find a sense of calm.

SocietyAugust 16, 2017

Getting your shit together: yoga as a survival tool

Teaching at risk children yoga and mindfulness has helped them find a sense of calm.
Teaching at risk children yoga and mindfulness has helped them find a sense of calm.

Getting Your Shit Together is a monthly column on everyday mental health from Auckland mindfulness educator Kristina Cavit. This month she’s talking about the effect yoga has had on her own life, and on those of the prisoners and children she works with.

Growing up in New Zealand’s ‘toughen-up’, rugby-dominated sports culture, our school P.E class was torturous for me. As an adult, I still wasn’t interested in organised sport and I had no desire to work out in a sweaty gym. So I thought yoga might be worth a try.

There was a lot of stuff I couldn’t do at first: down dog, push ups and pretty much all of the balancing poses. I was almost always the biggest in the room and I initially felt like I didn’t fit the yoga mould – super fit, thin, athletic humans in expensive leggings. But I found some great teachers and yoga started to have a really big impact on my physical and mental health. I was able to exercise and move my body in a way that didn’t feel like torture. It was one of the first times I felt comfortable exercising and not pressured to compete or compare myself with others.

Kristina Cavit teaching yoga and mindfulness in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

As a person who can never sit still, yoga helped me to quiet my mind. When I left class I would feel so relaxed and this calmness creeped into other aspects of my life. Yoga was one place where I left feeling 10 times better physically and mentally.

Six years after I started practicing yoga, I did my first yoga teacher training. I felt way out of my depth. Everyone on the course was an actual athlete, dancer or yoga guru; one of our teachers was an ex-Olympic gymnast. I was the biggest in the course, the only one not in shape and I had no fucking idea what crow pose was.

Learning more about modern yoga opened my eyes to just how much society has become obsessed with yoga gymnastics. We’ve lost the true meaning of yoga, which is to connect with ourselves and take better care of our minds. Yoga in Sanskrit translates to yoke, unite or connect. The physical benefits are a bonus, not the goal.

Although yoga often seems to be more about wealth, retreats and being white, thin and able bodied, I believe in challenging those bullshit stereotypes. It’s not about burning as many calories as you can in the shortest amount of time; it’s not about what you look like.

I’m a curvy yoga teacher, I can’t do a headstand and I don’t give a shit. You don’t need to be able to touch your toes, be strong or fit to do yoga. Go to an ashram and you’ll see people of all shapes and sizes, some in their 90s, others disabled. It’s okay if you look completely different to everyone else in the pose. Don’t worry if you’re feeling super tight, you wobble, fall and need to rest – yoga will slowly help you with that. In my world, as long as you’re on the mat, breathing and doing your best to be kind to yourself, you’re doing yoga.

I became a yoga teacher because it changed my life and I wanted to share it with those who wouldn’t normally have access to yoga, and who needed it too. When I was working with kids at the NPH Dominican Republic orphanage after the Haiti 2010 earthquake, the energy in class was often chaotic. These kids needed time to chill. I started teaching yoga and relaxation and the energy completely changed. The sense of calm was incredible. This month I’ve been back in the Dominican Republic teaching more children yoga and mindfulness.

Teaching at risk children yoga and mindfulness has helped them find a sense of calm.

With the rangatahi I teach here in Auckland at The Kindness Institute, I’ve had kids tell me that after yoga and meditation they feel more relaxed than they ever have. I’ve seen yoga and meditation help kids to turn around antisocial and sometimes criminal behaviours. I’ve witnessed the effectiveness of yoga in helping them in highly stressful situations to reduce stress, anxiety, and improve positive decision making and relationship skills to better manage confrontations and behavioural challenges.

I’ve also taught yoga at a women’s prison. I start each class with a korero; I tell my students that they don’t need a certain body type, fitness level and or do anything that doesn’t work for them. It’s really important for students to know that the whole hour is about relaxing and taking care of themselves.

At our first prison yoga class there were 16 students, the next week 23, and 27 the following week. The students were always super kind, welcoming, open minded, focused and respectful. One of the coolest things was having one of the guards participate at the back of the room. Teaching these wahine has been a real privilege.

After our classes, the women get locked up again. The value of yoga for someone who’s in continuous confinement and incarceration can be huge. If prisoners are emotionally and physically healthy, we’re more likely to reduce recidivism rates and lower the cost of running prisons. And I know this mahi has a ripple effect – on the prisoners, their friends, families and even the guards.

I’ve seen reactive behaviour change with enough connection, respect and self-awareness practice. And the research backs this up: prison yoga participants show reduced stress and psychological distress and better performance in cognitive-behavioural tasks. That means that yoga may be effective in improving wellbeing, mental health, and executive functioning within prison populations. This is important given the consistently high rates of psychological distress among prisoners and the fact that it reportedly costs over $90,000 to keep someone in prison in Aotearoa for just one year.

Yoga can and should be used as a survival tool. Imagine the impact on prison culture and recidivism rates if more prisoners could practice yoga. Imagine how kids in stressful situations at home could thrive with the tools they learn on the mat. My dream is to someday run a yoga teacher training programme inside the women’s prison so the women can go on to teach people who need it the most. And my hope is for all kids in Aotearoa to learn yoga and meditation from the age of five. It can only lead to good things.

This column is brought to you by the Mental Health Foundation. The MHF is working to create an Aotearoa where we all feel good most of the time, whether or not you have experience of mental illness. It promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing – give, be active, take notice, keep learning and connect – because these five amazingly simple strategies really will make a difference to how you live and feel every day.

Keep going!