Grounded in Love: Empowering kids, homeless with yoga
On a cloudy weekday morning at Druid Hills Middle School, physical education has a new look. Behind kids running, jumping and dribbling balls, a group of about 50 teenaged girls lie on their mats behind a curtain. Some have their eyes closed, others are staring at the dim fluorescent lights in the ceiling. All of them are focused. They are focusing on their breath.
“Listen to the sound of your breath,” Cheryl Crawford says as she walks between the girl, careful not to step on the paper triangles decorated with each student’s handwritten name.
The students are part of Grounded, the program Crawford co-founded to teach yoga to kids. Drawn from the principles of Anusara yoga, the Grounded focus is to empower young people with being mindful, awareness of self, compassion for others and strength – physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Now the girls are in downward dog pose, an inverted triangle where the head hangs. They gaze at each other from underneath their arms and share ripples of laughter, but no one misses Crawford’s instructions. Each student had to fill out an application explaining why they wanted to do yoga in order to be accepted into the class. Being here is a privilege and none of them want to miss out. Some of these kids have been known as constant trouble-makers. Many had reputations that preceded them – getting in fights and disrupting class. Now they are moving in unison, with the breath, helping with each other’s alignment.
If this does not fit your perception of what yoga is, that’s because yoga doesn’t usually look like this. Instead of adult bodies sweating in pricey private studios, Crawford and her Grounded team have brought yoga out into the community – to Atlanta Public Schools of all places. For Crawford, however, it’s not as wide a leap as one would think.
Crawford taught in Fulton County schools for seven years. “Every grade except kindergarten,” she says. “I became a reading specialist after a while. I loved teaching, I loved everything about it.” She stepped away only after giving birth to triplet girls. Crawford began practicing at what is now Be Hot Yoga when her daughters were babies. She quickly found an interest in teaching on the mat and began with Marsha Wenig’s Yoga Kids. Crawford received her certification from Atlanta Hot Yoga and was teaching yoga at Fernbank Elementary before she knew it. Jason Marshall, the school’s principal, asked her to come.
“I started a yoga club there and I was still working with Yoga Kids and we’d have programs and test them out at Fernbank. We’d get permission to go into the classes and try things out with the kids and they’d give us all this feedback.” Eventually, she launched the Grounded program, which included teaching school teachers, too.
The key to Grounded yoga is that Crawford doesn’t dumb things down for her younger students. “We try to meet them where there are, but we never want to leave them there,” she says. So classes include all the same poses she’d teach to adults with similar notes and modifications,but instead of using that tough job as an example of unnecessary stress, she might use homework or chores.
“We don’t water down anything. We take these deep esoteric teachings – they’re very potent and refined and meaningful. What you’re teaching a 7-year-old is the same for a 37-year-old. Seven-year-olds have doubts and fears and quandaries that manifest in their bodies just like we do. They understand it.”
And according to Crawford, they really need it. Especially the kids who get into trouble. Crawford’s daughters also attend Druid Hills Middle School and participate in the Grounded program there. One of her daughters had her cell phone stolen by a fellow student. When the school administration discovered who was culpable they encouraged Crawford to press charges.
“My girl said, ‘Mom, can we sentence her to yoga?’ I thought it was a great idea, to ‘sentence’ this girl to yoga. They asked if she was interested and we got parental permission and the school agreed. When she walked in, I didn’t know at the time that was the girl who had taken the phone. I said to her, ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’ Later on, she told me no one had ever said that to her before.”
Crawford believes that when kids act out they are requesting help. With her daughter’s suggestions, she saw the cell phone incident as an opportunity. “These kids don’t get in trouble with people they respect. It’s so easy to say, ‘Oh these kids don’t care.’ But they do. They want us to get authentic when they behave like that. So we try to serve the kids. Schools have come so far from that.”
It’s easy for some to assume that yoga is a cakewalk from other types of physical education. The best remedy for that presumption is to take a class. Crawford is interested in reclaiming the term “discipline” – moving it away from the paradigm of punishment and back towards an understanding of practice and learning. “I tell them they’re going to work hard and they’re going to sweat. And they’re gonna love it,” she smiles. “It carries over to how they act in class, what they eat. One of our students was suffering from depression and was able to get off of their medication in six weeks.”
In addition to training teachers in the Grounded program and working with young people in schools throughout Atlanta, Crawford can also be found in the yoga studio. She taught at Decatur Yoga and Pilates for several years where she cultivated a reputation for generating fun and focus. Now she teaches at Form Yoga, a newer studio in Decatur. But one slot in her calendar is always reserved for a group of men in Downtown Atlanta.
Central Night Shelter
Crawford met Katie Bashor, director of the Central Night Shelter,when she taught at Fernbank. She came to the Grounded teacher trainings Crawford held at the school. It wasn’t long before Crawford suggested bringing yoga to the homeless men there.
“It was her idea,” Bashor says. “I was like, are you sure they’ll be into it? They were.”
The men range in age from the thirties to mid-seventies. They come to class with their belongings in tow and set them off to the side to practice. Mats were donated by Ember Yoga and blankets came from Springs Yoga.
In one wall-supported pose, Crawford instructs the men to straighten one arm, and press one hand flat into the wall. It’s a pose meant to bring blood flow and opening to the shoulder muscles.
“I can’t,” one middle-aged man says, gesturing to his cupped palm in frustration. “I got shot. I can’t flatten my hand there.”
Just days before Valentine’s Day, Crawford didn’t miss a beat. “What, did Cupid get you?” Her tone was serious but her face beamed. “I guess Cupid was trying to get your attention.” She approached the man and pressed on top of his palm gently. “This will heal it,” she says, referring to the pose. “You’ll heal it.”
After Crawford completed one side, she requested that a volunteer teach the class the other using the same modifications. Mr. Cupid raised his hand, stepping to the front of the class. His directions were perfect, and he even added on a cautionary tip: “Be careful not to overextend.”
Bashor notes, “It’s not often that these men get touched in their world, living on the street.”
Crawford adds, “Even in savasana [resting pose], they can lie back, close their eyes and not worry about someone jumping on them.”
Crawford says she hopes that eventually the class will become a community class, open to everyone, not just the men who come to the shelter. “I’ve always wanted to connect people who don’t normally connect. We gravitate to the people most like us. If we help people get out of patterns, we create a more flexible world, a more accepting world.”