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  • Writer's pictureSara Timofeev

My Reflections: Mindfulness at the Juvenile Justice Center

Imagine an environment where you need permission to change your clothes. If you want to use the bathroom, or get up and grab a pencil, you’re required to ask — and the same is true for many other freedoms we usually take for granted. Next, try to visualize a space that’s shared with several others your age. You’re all dressed the same, and something as simple as what to watch on TV is decided either by a group or by a guard.

In 2010, I began teaching yoga at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center, where day in and day out, kids experience this environment firsthand.

I had only just completed my 200-hour yoga certification when I first started with Shanthi Project. At that time, my classes at the JJC were held in the gym. The acoustics were unyielding, and it was always chilly. We practiced yoga directly next to the cafeteria, and the smells of cooking food would float about, often making it difficult to remain present. Despite these challenges, I quickly came to see the benefits of what we brought to the JJC — and I recognized the potential for this work to change lives.

Finding the Right Rhythm 

Initially, my classes began with only a brief mindfulness reflection. Together, we would set an intention — like being a mirror of goodness, or coming to terms with what’s out of our control. We tried to carry this intention with us through each of the yoga poses, ending each class with an abbreviated body scan.

Through the years, I’ve worked to find a ratio of mindfulness versus yoga that resonates with my students. Though I now incorporate more mindfulness than when I began (a split of 30% mindfulness / 70% yoga), we find that mindfulness and yoga are intertwined constantly throughout our hour-long sessions.

Now, during classes, we often discuss how mindfulness can take many forms; it doesn’t always have to be a formal meditation. In such an inhibitive environment, it can help to practice simple, informal mindfulness — such as moving a pen on paper as we breathe deeply. In this exercise, I ask my students to follow their breath with the pen, instead of deliberately making marks on the paper. What results is an artistic rendering of the breath: a visual representation of where the breath was shallow and where it was longer. Visualizing the breath gives us an opportunity to focus on the present, reflecting on how we are doing right here, right now.

Fast Forward: What’s It Like in 2024?

Nearly fourteen years since my first sessions, classes are now held in students’ living quarters, called pods, where heavy furniture is moved away and mats are carefully laid on the ground. Through the years, I have taught both girls’ and boys’ pods.

Given the restrictive environment, it has always been my goal during classes to provide as much choice on the yoga mat as possible. For example, students can choose between pose variations or between two poses that offer the same benefit. I tell them that mindfulness practice can take place with eyes softly open, or closed. At the end of our class, we notice, with intention, how we’re feeling and breathing: is it any different than when we began? I ask.

I remind them that when it comes to mindfulness, there are no right or wrong answers: just questions. The class closes with an opportunity to rest the muscles and reflect with a moment of stillness.

As I reintroduce sound and movement, the benefits are visible. My students’ shoulders appear lighter from tension, and their faces have grown softer. It feels like you can almost reach out and grab the peace floating around. The growth of each participant is visible, as they grow more confidence in their poses and their shared understanding of mindfulness.

My own experiences with yoga have taught me to be present and aware of my body, the space I take up, and my own capacity for movement. I know that trauma can be stored within the physical body, but I’ve found that these blockages can be unraveled through the practice — and I try to bring my lived experience to the students each day. 

We asked our students at the JJC to reflect on their experiences of our classes. Click through the slideshow above to read some of their responses.

Growth Goes Both Ways

One morning last fall, I hurt my back while at home. Though I continued to teach monthly at the JJC, I was limited in my ability to demonstrate many yoga poses. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t give it my all. One day, I opened up to the group with transparency, letting them know my concerns — at that point, I could only sit and verbally lead poses for the class. One of the boys said that, no matter what, the group was grateful I could be there to share this experience with them. They were willing to take what I could give and adapt. I was touched beyond words by this understanding and thoughtfulness.

The Sanskrit word “yoga” translates into “union,” and that’s exactly what I felt in the room on that day. Throughout my many years at the JJC, I have always tried to explain that yoga isn’t about being perfect; it’s about being present for whatever your body and mind can offer in that moment. I wholeheartedly believe that this lesson has been received and internalized by Shanthi Project’s students at the JJC.

I’ve learned and grown from them as much as I feel they have from me. Yoga has saved me in many ways, and it’s my passion to share what I’ve learned with as many people as I can. Each experience at the JJC has been a gift —which is why, after almost fourteen years, I keep coming back. 

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