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From Probation Officer to Yogi

Updated: May 20, 2020

By David Laboski

If someone told me 25 years ago that I would be sitting in front of teenagers inside a juvenile detention facility teaching and leading them through mindfulness practices and yoga asanas, I would have looked at them with a puzzled look and laughed. Yoga? I cannot even touch my toes. And what is mindfulness?

You see, 25 years ago, I was a juvenile probation officer assigned to a high school in an effort to cut down on truancy and suspensions. One of the most difficult parts of the job was when a juvenile would have to be placed in a detention facility for either violating their probation contract or committing another offense. 

Well, in 2018, I embarked on a personal journey and decided to obtain my yoga teacher certification, and when I finished, I was fortunate to join Shanthi Project. Throughout this year, I have had the privilege to be sitting in front of teenagers inside the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center in Easton, teaching them mindfulness practices and leading them through trauma-informed yoga routines. There are many benefits for incarcerated youth to learn and practice mindfulness. 

The Benefits of Yoga and Mindfulness for Youth

Since the goal for the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate and successfully reintegrate each adolescent back into the community, teaching mindfulness can certainly be an important piece of overall treatment plan. With the majority of incarcerated youth possessing many more “ACEs” (Adverse Childhood Experiences) compared to the average teenager, it becomes imperative that treatment include techniques to help improve the cognitive abilities of these young offenders.  

Here are just some of the benefits of mindfulness for youth that are supported by scientific research

  1. Improved attention,

  2. Emotional regulation,

  3. Greater compassion, and

  4. Reduction of stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness techniques can help all of us be less reactive when faced with a stressful event in our lives, but this is especially critical for teens whose brains are still developing. Adolescents think more with their amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our emotions, and less with their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us make decisions and keep our reactions in check. If one of the goals is to reduce poor decision-making and ultimately reduce recidivism then mindfulness becomes a useful tool for the juvenile offender’s toolbox. 

However, just like anything in life, if we want to get better at something we have to practice. Mindfulness is no different. That is why the work of Shanthi Project and its long-standing partnership with the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center has been and continues to be important for not only the each teenager but also for the community as well. 

My Experience at Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center

I can speak from experience when I say that after each hour of teaching and leading a group of teenagers in the Juvenile Justice Center, I not only see but also feel an overall sense of calm and peace. Their feelings are evident in their faces, their postures and body language, and the words they use to communicate their appreciation for me being present with them. 

“Thank you, I feel so much better. That was great.” – Michael

One student, Angela, has shared that she looks forward to this hour each week, and she always uses her breath as an anchor to reset herself when she is feeling upset or angry. Another student, Michael, after weeks of being in front of him without any communication, said to me after a session, “Thank you, I feel so much better. That was great.” Then he gave me a big smile.  

Every time I finish teaching and leading a group of teens in the Justice Center, I come away with more knowledge because they always teach me something. 

Spread the Word

I have seen the immense benefits of practicing mindfulness and teaching it to others in both my personal and professional lives, so I would encourage anyone reading this to please share it with a friend or family member. If you have children, share it with their school administration or local school board.

David Laboski, M.Ed, RYT, is a trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness teacher with the Shanthi Project, and House Principal at Pennridge High School in Bucks County

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