On Practicing Inversions Without Going Upside Down

Let’s talk for a minute about inversions. There are entire podcasts dedicated to handstands. Many yoga teachers set aside more than half of their class time, or even host entire workshops, to focus on inversions — and for good reason; improper alignment can lead to serious injury. All this to say, in grown-up yoga, it’s kind of a big deal to go upside down.

With those factors on the table — and taking into consideration the way kids’ bodies develop — you won’t find a single inversion among the 50+ yoga poses we train teachers to practice with their students at Yoga Foster.

But after participating in a weekend-long training with the Lineage Project in July, I realized that yoga and mindfulness for kids can be an inversion in and of itself.

A little about The Lineage Project: they’ve been up and running here in New York City for almost 20 years, teaching mindfulness and movement to vulnerable youth across the five boroughs. The kids Lineage works with — in juvenile detention and incarceration facilities, suspension high schools, alternative to incarceration programs, and transitional programs — are middle- and high-school aged, and while it’s complicated to generalize, they often represent the most underserved communities in our city and in our country.

These kids are older, and oftentimes find themselves in much more complex situations than the Pre-K–5th public school students whose teachers are incorporating Yoga Foster’s programming. But over the course of the Lineage training, I found far more similarities than differences in our work. In the 20-hour training I did, we learned about trauma-informed teaching methods, discussed resilience theory, and opened the group to an important and timely conversation about bias surrounding race, ethnicity, and gender.

What struck me most about the Lineage training though was the way the two training facilitators modeled inversions, and I don’t mean that they were walking around on their hands.

4 ways I learned to turn a situation upside down:

  1. Stand up for sitting out. Kids and teens get told what to do. A lot. Saying to a student, “I think it’s great that you made the right choice for yourself by sitting quietly, thanks for that,” is a way to affirm a kid’s agency and ability to choose. It preemptively shuts down any conflict that would arise from arguing with her to get her to join in.
  2. Let kids be picky. No matter where you stand in the standardized test debate, you probably remember a time when you yourself dreaded sharpening that number 2 pencil and filling in answers you had memorized. In a yoga class where kids have options to try different poses, there’s some relief from the “one right answer” mindset that’s necessitated by grades and tests. Even a brief break from the rhythm of check marks = good, red x’es = bad can remind kids of their creativity and individuality, and can serve as an example for appreciating that of those around them.
  3. Set a bad example. This one isn’t really literal, but it refers to an important lesson that stuck with me after the training. A lot of times in meditation, we’re asked to close our eyes. When teaching the meditation portion of the Lineage class, our facilitator very succinctly offered, “you can close your eyes if you want to; I’ll keep mine open.” The vulnerability of sitting in a group with eyes closed can be beautiful; it can also be threatening and even terrifying. Sometimes knowing that the person in charge is keeping an eye on things gives a kid the freedom to let down his guard, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
  4. Be boring. Transience can be the norm for kids in the system, but it also can be the norm for just plain growing up. Bodies change, classrooms change from year to year, seasons change. Creating a routine by starting every class the same way, or even by using the same movements each time you practice yoga, gives kids’ minds and muscles a chance to say, “this is familiar, I can do this, I know what to expect.”

Of course, these options apply for grown-ups as much as they do for kids — more on that in another post. For now, I’m encouraged by the incredible work of teachers thinking critically and creatively about how to upend their students’ expectations to help them grow.