Fluorescent lights buzzed overhead in the Richfield school gymnasium as Kelly La Frenier sat cross-legged on a mat on the cold tile floor and closed her eyes.
It wasn’t the usual Zen ambience of a dimly lit, posh yoga studio. But for the instructor’s student, a 15-year-old boy on probation, the benefit of the free class was just the same — giving him an escape, especially on this day, a bad day, by helping him relax and breathe.
The weekly class is part of a special partnership between a nonprofit Minneapolis yoga studio, One Yoga, and the Link, a nonprofit that provides after-school alternatives to detention for 13- to 18-year-old boys in Hennepin County. Instead of going to the county’s secure detention center or the Home School, boys on probation attend the reporting centers at two Twin Cities schools, where they are tutored, participate in activities and learn about conflict resolution.
The Link decided to start yoga classes seven years ago to introduce the practice to at-risk teens who may never have tried it, hoping they leave more limber, but more importantly, stronger mentally.
“It’s a wonderful positive outlet they can carry on,” said Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of the Link. “It’s good to provide a variety of positive activities for youth.”
Hennepin County also started yoga classes four years ago with volunteer instructors teaching girls who are on probation at the Home School, inspired by military veterans who have used yoga to help with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Kristi Cobbs, the county’s director of the girls program. Cobbs said yoga has boosted the girls’ self-esteem while helping them regulate their emotions and impulses.
It may seem like a “fluff” activity, Cobbs said, but “there is actual research supporting the effectiveness.”
Worry less, breathe more
A 2011 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that fourth- and fifth-graders who took a mindfulness class four days a week for 12 weeks reported an increase in their ability to regulate their emotions. They also worried less and had fewer negative thoughts. Most of the students in the study were black and from low-income neighborhoods with high levels of violence.
The study’s researchers have pointed out that broader evidence shows that childhood trauma can affect kids psychologically, impairing their response to stress and their ability to control emotions. Mindfulness, the study said, could help at-risk youth better manage future stress.
“For all of these young people, they’re handling a lot of difficulties and adversity,” said Tamar Mendelson, an associate professor at the school who worked on the study and said more research on the subject is needed. “Kids are often in fight or flight response all the time. It can give students extra tools to manage these stresses.”
Sporting yoga pants on a recent Tuesday at the Richfield school, La Frenier demonstrated the poses, barefoot on her mat.
The teenage student, wearing jeans and sneakers, kept pace, mimicking the chair pose and forward bend before she guided him and two employees from the Link through mindfulness.
“There’s nowhere you have to go right now, nothing else you have to do,” La Frenier said in a calm voice. “Just notice how you feel. There’s no right or wrong way.”
She had a more reluctant audience earlier that night in a Brooklyn Park school gymnasium.
‘Not a quick fix’
“How are you doing?” she asked a tall, lanky teen, who shrugged impassively.
It was his first class and he remained standing while La Frenier guided four other boys through a plank pose, then an upward dog pose. La Frenier, who has taught the classes for four years, refrained from using yoga terms, instead describing the movements.
The boy eventually gave up, leaving halfway through the class. But the other boys followed her poses before she ended the 50-minute session by emphasizing mindfulness and sitting in silence. After dropping lavender oil on the boys’ palms, she acknowledged that yoga isn’t for everyone.
“At least it’s an introduction [to yoga],” she said. “It takes time. It’s not a quick fix.”
One Yoga also provides a two-hour weekly class to women at the state prison in Shakopee and homeless men and women in Minneapolis. It’s part of a broader trend of showing that yoga and meditation isn’t just for the rich, but accessible and beneficial to everyone, from local elementary schoolchildren to prison inmates.
“Having these practices and skills helps you feel more grounded … and helps support a quality of life that we think should be available to everyone,” said Kris Cramer, the development director at One Yoga. “It’s something we view as a luxury, but everyone should have it in their lives.”