Quiet the Mind, Open the Heart

Yoga 4 Change (Y4C) teachers carry 3×5 cards with them to each class. They serve as small, safe spaces for their students to give feedback—little arrows of honesty that go straight to the heart.

The card that made yoga teacher Kristi Robbins cry came from a 15-year-old at the Youth Crisis Center. It reads, “I liked when you opened up to us. You inspired me to have a good family and to be a good mom.”

When Robbins was 15 years old she too spent time at the Youth Crisis Center, struggling to find peace with her mom, and herself. The center serves as “an emergency room for families in crisis,” Robbins says of the organization that, in her teen years, offered her sanctuary thirteen times.

At Yoga 4 Change class time, the girls come into the room carrying attitude like a shield. For some, it’s an assumed toughness, for others, it’s a punishing religious faith. When Robbins asks them if their attitude reflects their true self or if it is a protective shell, the girls defiantly proclaim one hundred percent authenticity, writing on their index cards: #nofake.

Then Robbins asks “Has anyone ever chosen a mask for you?” A reflective silence descends, and she knows class can begin.

“I try to be somebody I would have wanted to talk to when I was there,” says Robbins.

The yoga teachers work with unpredictable people in unpredictable situations. Their students are men and women in prison, addicts in rehab, veterans with PTSD and at-risk teens and middle school children who all bring deep wounds and wear tough masks to class.

Leah Hansen is co-owner of Hot Spot Power Yoga in San Marco. It is one of several Jacksonville studios that offer donation-based classes to support Y4C. “We honor Yoga 4 Change because they’re working with people others have given up on,” she says.

Kathryn Thomas, Y4C’s founder, works with incarcerated men. While she too uses index cards and pencils, the structure of her classes must accommodate her students’ reality and respect the jail’s rules. She hides her femininity, wearing men’s deodorant, presenting herself as neutral, non-threatening.

“They can’t have bottled water,” says Thomas. “So, I don’t have water.”

Thomas’s background as a Navy pilot helps her with the focus and clarity needed to teach well here. The ground rules: don’t judge the person on your left, the person on your right, or the person on your mat. No cross-talk.

Then Robbins asks “Has anyone ever chosen a mask for you?” A reflective silence descends, and she knows class can begin.

“I try to be somebody I would have wanted to talk to when I was there,” says Robbins.

The yoga teachers work with unpredictable people in unpredictable situations. Their students are men and women in prison, addicts in rehab, veterans with PTSD and at-risk teens and middle school children who all bring deep wounds and wear tough masks to class.

Leah Hansen is co-owner of Hot Spot Power Yoga in San Marco. It is one of several Jacksonville studios that offer donation-based classes to support Y4C. “We honor Yoga 4 Change because they’re working with people others have given up on,” she says.

Kathryn Thomas, Y4C’s founder, works with incarcerated men. While she too uses index cards and pencils, the structure of her classes must accommodate her students’ reality and respect the jail’s rules. She hides her femininity, wearing men’s deodorant, presenting herself as neutral, non-threatening.

“They can’t have bottled water,” says Thomas. “So, I don’t have water.”

Thomas’s background as a Navy pilot helps her with the focus and clarity needed to teach well here. The ground rules: don’t judge the person on your left, the person on your right, or the person on your mat. No cross-talk.

Douglas’s family moved from Mexico to North Carolina when Douglas was a teenager. Her bi-cultural perspective helps her address ethnic tensions at the jail. “I can ask, when someone else can’t,” says Douglas, ‘why only the black girls or only the white girls are in class today.”

In addition, her eight-year struggle with anorexia helps her connect. “I remember, people would say to me, ‘Just eat!’ and I’d think, That sounds so easy but I can’t.” says Douglas. “That’s what these girls are like. We want them to understand they’re not stuck.”

Douglas describes unproductive thought patterns to her students by comparing them to a train, endlessly circling. The cars on the trains are the bad thoughts, relentlessly bound to the track. “What thoughts do you have? What thoughts would you like to have? Change the wagons on your train!”

After one class, a student shared a conflict avoided outside of class with Douglas. She said, “I steered my train away from trouble today!”

Douglas says of her students, “They break my heart. They’re struggling, but they don’t know how much.”

For many yoga teachers, their passion for the practice starts with a free class. Leah Hansen took hers in college. Now the former Johnson & Johnson chemist shares studio ownership with her husband Jon. The couple opened Hot Spot Power Yoga the day they returned from their honeymoon.

Because their work and their lives intertwine, the Hansens experience private grief in a public way. When their infant son Charlie died after 11 days, their staff and students grieved with them. Hansen says her losses have definitely affected her teaching, “There was a real vulnerability and rawness required to be inspirational. After Charlie’s death, I wasn’t sure I could do that without falling apart. Yoga became a platform to connect with other people and to keep going,” she says.

Their support of the Y4C has been pivotal. In the early days of the organization finding space to teach was tough. “A lot of people said no to us. But Jon and Leah have always said yes,” says Thomas. The quiet of their studio is a place of respite for those whose lives are in constant tumult.

For many, the best part of yoga is savasana, the supine resting pose at the end of class. For Thomas’s incarcerated students, nervous, perpetually wary men, this pose is hardest. Thomas repeats like a mantra, “My eyes are open so your eyes can close.”

Thomas and the teachers of Y4C practice yoga and life with eyes wide open. In the stories of their students, they hear some of the worst people can do and, in their classes, they see people trying to reach their best.

At Y4C’s Hemming Plaza classes, former students check in with their teachers. “It’s hard,” they say of their lives back at home or on the street. “But I’m working on it, and it’s gonna be okay.”

(Originally posted in First Coast Magazine)

Russel Quadros