Caverzasi, AP. “Yoga, a Lifeline for the Children at the Rice Child and Family Center” YogaChicago, 2010, pp. 16–17.
The Rice Child and Family Center in Evanston sits on the corner of Washington and Ridge, across the street from prairie-style homes and a private Catholic school. Inside this residential treatment facility live 46 of Illinois’ most damaged children, the victims of emotional and sexual trauma. The children are between eight and fifteen years of age, and they suffer mental illness, posttraumatic stress disorder, and self-injurious behavior like cutting. The Rice Center treats the children so that they can be placed in foster care or returned to their families. Keith Polan, Rice’s Director of Residential Services, explains, “Kids aren’t to be raised in institutions. We’re an institution. We give them the treatment here so they can be raised in more traditional settings.”
Ten months ago, after a successful summer pilot program, Keith and clinical supervisor Lesley Hawley integrated two 45-minute yoga sessions into the kids’ weekly therapy program. Keith explains, “Working with traumatized kids, working with any kids, a lot of traditional treatment methods don’t work. Getting an eight-year-old in a room to talk about why he was sexually abused, why mom didn’t come home at night, may work for some, [but it] doesn’t work for most. So we need to find creative ways to get these kids into treatment.” Keith and Lesley didn’t know how the kids would take to yoga, but since the program was started, the children at the Rice Center have embraced the practice, using what they learn in class to help them manage their emotions off the mat.
On a bleak January afternoon, Keith and Lesley give me a tour of the center, a sterile, cold place despite the rainbow of handprints in the stairwell and the murals in the residential area. On the tour, Lesley points out a padded room, perhaps as big as eight by eight feet. When the children are in crisis (i.e., acting aggressive) they go into the room to “de-escalate.” Pointing at a camera in the corner, Keith tells me he is responsible for screening all the footage and that he’s seen something incredible–kids in a tantrum taking a breath, and then, a yoga posture.
Though new to yoga, many of the Rice Center’s kids already know that they can use their breath and yoga postures to level their emotions. The Rice Center staff practice yoga with the kids, and so when one child enters into crisis, the staff will often remind the children to slow their breath or take a calming posture. Unlike art and music therapy, yoga therapy gives the Rice children something they can turn to any time. Lesley explains, “[The kids] won’t always have crayons with [them].. Yoga gives them something they can use alone all the time.”
I speak to Evanston-based husband and wife yoga team, Nick and Lela Beem, two of the Rice Center’s yoga teachers. Lela says, “This [yoga] program is for the kids who are falling through the cracks in society. Yoga can be like a lifeline for them.” Certified in Kripalu and Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, Nick and Lela possess the experience and understanding needed to teach these children. Lela worked at a wilderness program for adjudicated youth, and both Nick and Lela taught yoga to children with special needs at the Arlyn School in Wilmette. Lesley says, “Knowing that these children had such issues, we needed the right teacher.. We needed someone who could be sensitive to these children’s issues.[and] understand [their] boundaries.”
Because the kids at the Rice Center are highly resistant to change, everything in their environment at Rice is predictable and highly regulated. Taking into consideration the children’s need for routine, the Beems teach the same sequence of asanas each week. Lela says she draws upon her Kripalu and Phoenix Rising training, as they help her “to be less rigid about what [yoga] should look like and to help each kid find their individual expression of what yoga means to them.” In addition to creating a safe environment for the children to try yoga, Nick and Lela also emphasize that yoga is therapy and how they can use the poses when they’re upset or can’t sleep.
Wanting to see the Beems in action, I visit Nick’s class first. In the cafeteria, a bright space that overlooks the courtyard, Nick begins class by asking the children to focus on how they’re feeling, as he would in a Phoenix Rising session. Sometimes Nick asks one of the kids to lead a posture, step by step. “Some of them [do] amazing impersonations of me, showing that they’re really paying attention,” Nick tells me. After practicing surya namaskar (sun salutation) and several postures, he reminds the children to breathe. “When we breathe slowly, it’s like we’re sending our body a signal that it’s okay to relax.” From across the room, I can see the kids’ chests rising and falling. Some of them even have their eyes closed.
Teaching the children how to cultivate tranquility and self-awareness is at the heart of Lela’s class as well. Lela says, “The whole idea is that you’re investigating yourself, and the teacher is more of a facilitator in the experience.. We’re just providing a safe space for people to start to explore their bodies.” Working with the body not only teaches the children about themselves, it also gives them insight into group and community dynamics. Lesley says, “I find that doing bodywork is a really good way for [the kids] to get in sync with other people. Without having to use words, they’re able to find ways to be in community.”
Though the children are developing personal and communal awareness, they’re still working on trusting others. Having spoken to Lela about her class, I know that savasana , final relaxation, is the most difficult part for the kids. “We’ve started to let them lie on their stomachs rather than their backs. Some of the kids just feel safer that way,” Lela tells me. In the class I observe, about half the children lay on their stomachs when Lela goes to turn off the lights. The fragility of these kids comes through when one boy, around 12 years old, asks Lela to keep the lights on. “I can stay up as guardian,” Lesley offers. Though the lights stay on, Lela later tells me that she’s seen an increase in the number of kids who are willing to lie on their backs, more proof that this program is building the children’s sense of security and their ability to feel calm.
Since starting the yoga program, Keith has noticed that the number of physical restraints has dropped. Though it’s hard to measure the success of the yoga program independent of the Rice Center’s other therapeutic endeavors, Keith suggests that a sign of success is that the Rice Center’s kids look forward to yoga class. “In treatment centers like ours, everything is predictable. Kids who come here need lives that are predictable. Traumatized kids stop thinking forward.. When you introduce something new, it’s a shock to the system. For [the yoga program] now to be in its tenth month and still going strong, I can make an argument that [it’s] having an impact.”
In the Beems’ classes, I heard from the kids themselves how yoga has impacted them. At the end of Lela’s class, she asks the children to bring their hands together in front of the heart and say one word that expresses how they’re feeling. They respond in turn, “soulful,” “Zen,” “tired,” “genuine,” “proud,” “renewed,” “peaceful,” “calm.” After each child speaks, Lela softly repeats the word so they know that she’s heard them. When I ask her how those responses make her feel, Lela says, “For a kid that I know who has had a majorly traumatic life to say that they feel relaxed and happy after yoga class, even if it’s just an hour that they feel [that] in their bodies, it’s like the biggest gift ever.”