Name: Jill Weiss Ippolito
Location: Los Angeles
Occupation: Founder/Executive Director of UpRising Yoga
“Okay, I said hesitantly. Where is this place again?”
Camp Rockey is a Boys’ Correctional Facility located in San Dimas, up in the mountains across from a Girls’ Group Home we had taught at a couple months prior. I was told “it’s not that far” from Pasadena on a good day. Neil was a matter-of-fact Program Director who sought us out after hearing about UpRising Yoga, a program I started which brings yoga to juvenile hall and at-risk communities, where people cannot easily get to a class, let alone pay for one.
Of course I was intrigued and had a yoga teacher in Claremont that was eager to go. Neil explained what we were up against: a pretty rough group of rowdy kids, disengaged staff in the middle of nowhere—forgotten about. I liked Neil’s spirit and set a date to go teach three yoga classes with Nikhil, who had been teaching with UpRising for a while.
Once we arrived, we met Neil in the parking lot and lugged piles of new mats I had just bought from Marshall’s that smelled like plastic, much better than the used stinky ones I get donated from generous yoga studios around town. Nikhil, Neil and I juggled piles of mats in the scorching heat of the mountain desert weather. I swore I hear rattle snakes shaking in the fields. After being screened thoroughly, we walked across football fields of grass, through clanging doors and gates. Menacing barbed wire fence circled our heads above the vicious blue sky, so crisp and pretty this day—taunting freedom and beauty, but eerily caged, we walked on.
For a half an hour, various characters that may or may not have had the ability to open the door fumbled with keys trying to get us into the gym. It felt surreal. After little success, we walked another great length to a classroom. Nikhil was in awe of some giant screen in the middle of the room and glided over enamored.
“Wow, that’s a projector board they have in colleges, man, that’s nice! You can barely get this high technology in boarding school!” He went on to explain the fancy stuff this thing does and how hard it is to get in classrooms, while we moved the desk and chairs setting up mats and preparing for our students. Once ready, we had all the mats laid out, so pretty with harmonious colors. Some had corny quotes that said stuff like “Find Your Bliss” or such. We had smiles and were ready to start.
The next thing we knew, the door opened and a crowd of rambunctious boys came tumbling in with a short, loud woman behind them yelling at them to “Get in there! It’s yoga class!!”
I saw Neil talking to the officer who would be “watching” us. He was a hundred and ninety-seven years old and looked more punished than the kids. I started to worry.
“Hi, welcome to yoga! Hey there, I’m Jill and this is Nikhil. Please take your shoes off and hop on a mat,” I tried to say cheerfully. Shaved heads, baggy grey prison clothes, slouched shoulders, tattoos, posturing with glares, snickers, laughter, and boisterous behavior so undisciplined I wondered how I was going to offer my gift, the seeds of yoga healing I hoped to share. I moved into the authority role and started to barrel through like a commander. When it got loud, I got louder.
“Ok, class, how many of you have ever had yoga before?” One hand out of twenty-two went up. He was the shy, quiet one in the back. I thought of my training at UCLA when teaching kayaking to the mentally challenged…find the alpha kid,win them over and you got it…ok, not this guy!
“Anyone injured?” 82% of the hands went up. “Miss, miss, look! Here’s where I was shot!”
“Check out my shoulder, my knee. I just had three surgeries, they took some of the shrapnel out. You know how a bullet explodes? I get more taken out when I get out of here.”
So many little boys had bullets lodged in their bodies. Pain. Suffering. Gang members acting tough. Rows of boys on pastel mats hitting each other through the class I stumbled to teach, some seeking attention trying to get it right to show me, most too distracted by the sight of a female.
Nikhil taught the next two classes and one of them went surprisingly great. We had a sense of order and curiosity and there was a definite interest in yoga, the postures, the history, but most of all they noticed that they felt better at the end of class than when class first started. That magical shift happened. Yoga’s healing worked and the boys left calm, and tranquil and they thanked us for coming. It was so inspiring and hopeful.
The last class was so awful that I had to go get extra security and pull Nikhil out of there. You never know what is going on with kids in juvenile hall—what sticks or what doesn’t.
I know that teaching yoga to a group of kids who are locked up for something, helps. Across the field next to us, we saw one boy that was being transported to somewhere else in handcuffs. He looked over at us, smiled and said, “Hey, Namaste.”
I know that bringing yoga to that one boy provided just a little bit of peace that he can take with him in his heart forever.
THAT brings me a little bit more peace too…
Jill Weiss Ippolito is the Founder & Executive Director of UpRising Yoga. She teaches trauma-informed yoga in the juvenile hall she was once detained in. Jill authored UpRising Yoga’s training manual. She is a contributing author to the Yoga Service Council’s book series, “Best Practices for Yoga With Incarcerated and Court Involved Peoples” as well as a contributing writer for LA Yoga Magazine. She is embarking on memoir writing after being told “you should write a book” a million times! You can connect with UpRising Yoga on Facebook here and on Twitter here.
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