For Love Or Punishment

She walked into my class, a middle-aged suburban mom and a familiar face, but tonight with two kids in tow. One, a tall, lanky teenage girl, maybe 14 or 15, complete with those coltish legs that don’t always work quite right. And two, a boy about twelve who pushed in with arms crossed tight at his chest, shoulders rounded and a scowl as deep as Scrooge’s. He shuffled loudly over to the space directed by his mom and dropped a rolled-up yoga mat on the floor with a thud.

Ho boy.

I went about setting up my mat, every so often glancing over at the family and others entering the class. Easily a third of the class does not speak English as their first language. This is the beauty and the challenge of teaching at the Y. One or two new faces and many familiar ones. I noticed the boy, now sitting slumped on his mat, still scowling, directing his glare at me as if I was the enemy.

Maybe tonight I was. For him anyway.

That’s okay, I thought. I’m not afraid of you, your darkness. Here, I hold space for you and all that you are.

I once had a student tell me he brought his adolescent son to yoga as part of his punishment for misbehaving. I cringed and told him I never wanted anyone to think of yoga as punishment.

Yoga is anything but a punishment.

I wondered what motivated the mom to bring her two defiant children to a yoga class. I hoped it wasn’t punishment. Perhaps her partner was away and she really needed the class and couldn’t leave the kids at home. Maybe she thought it would be good for the boy. Was he on the autism spectrum? I had no idea, but I tried to give them all the benefit of doubt.

Hold space. Come as you are.

The class began and I assured everyone all they really had to do was make themselves present and breathe. So simple, I said. But not easy at all. I mentioned something about recognizing what you can control and what you cannot. I reminded them that, with practice, our reactions are usually within our control. Right then, the scowling boy rose up on his knees and shot daggers out of his eyes at me. I smiled back.

Holding space. Not afraid.

Anytime I have kids–especially teenagers–in the class, my intention is to let them know I see them but never fuss over them. No adjustments. I let them be. I encourage the parents–especially doting mothers–to let them be, too. How clearly I remember being that awkward adolescent. How I craved adult attention like I craved ice cream but never, ever wanted anyone to draw attention to me.

See me see me see me let me be let me be let me be see me see me see me let me be let me be let me be love me.

The class was fine. The boy mostly stood on his mat, glowering, attempting a few poses but doing very little. I demo’ed for the ones who would not understand my words but could mimic my body. Heels down, see? Like this, not this, right?

Visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Show me tell me touch me.

Those who don’t hear a word I say until I say their name and look directly at them. See me. Know me.

I was in the fitness office before my class when my tall, slender, dark-haired friend stopped in to greet me. I ate too much Nutella, she told me, so I’m banging out the cardio before your class to get rid of it.

I cringed again. I asked my friend what if. What if instead of treating our bodies as something that constantly needed “fixing”, we could simply accept the ebb and flow of life and trust that, with a little mindfulness, everything would get back to where it needed to be? What if exercise was not a punishment, not a penance to pay for bad behavior but instead, a loving and natural thing we did? What if eating more Nutella than we had intended was not something we felt ashamed about, but just something that happened every once in awhile?

Our bodies are meant to move. I save my shame for shameful things, like lying and stealing and murder.

These bodies of ours are fantastically engineered specimens of muscle and bone and fat and blood and breath that work best when we move and lift and challenge them so that we get and stay strong and flexible. To exercise is to love them, not to punish them or try to fix all the perceived wrongs we see in them.

I looked at my friend and I knew she wasn’t buying it. She hopped on the elliptical to sweat out her indiscretion.

At the end of class, the book I read from flipped open to a passage about love. I read it aloud to the roomful of sweaty, resting yogis. About how all the lessons are love. Not just about love but the lessons themselves are love. This yoga is love. Our bodies, love. You, me. All love.

What if?

Namaste and bow and out the door. I tried to catch the eye of the sullen boy before he left, but he was gone before I had a chance. The enemy wanted to give him a smile.

Simple. So simple. Hold space. Love.