Can you see me now? Yogis, weirdos, and at-risk youth find common ground

On my flight from Los Angeles to Chicago I see the mountain ridges, white on their tops with snow and turning sunset orange on their way down to sea level. I wonder what my layers look like from the bird’s eye and how my colors have changed after this week. I am leaving LA after participating in the Empowered Youth Initiative, Off the Mat Into the World’s first ever immersion training focused on the plight of “at-risk” youth in urban cities.

In reflecting on what is next for me after this experience, I have a bird’s eye view, but perhaps more importantly, I have a grand vision, an idea of what my steps will be once I land back on the ground.

I took a final walk on the promenade along Venice Beach on my last afternoon. I ate leftover Chinese food out of a carton and watched the bicyclers, rollerbladers and shoppers move by. The bellies, the hair and the facile attention to cheap trinkets confounded me. I quickly cast the weirdos on the beach for Spring Break in a separate realm from the normal people in Venice for a Yoga Leadership Training.

And so began my work.

What was the intention behind the colored hair and the bellies on display? Perhaps it is that everyone wants to be seen. The homeless man on the electric guitar, the women in bikinis, the kids in juvenile hall, the dealers in the street and the yogis on their mats. We all want to be seen.

But then we want to be accepted. My experience this week is that we as human beings are exceptional see-ers. We can spot race and class and status from the far off vistas of our personal experience. And then we proceed to withdraw, seclude and categorize our communities on a basis of comfortable, superficial sameness.

And then we say that it is difference we are afraid of.

Let me tell you it is not. No, we are afraid of the deep and rooted sameness that we share with the people who scare us. If we are honest we will see that we are afraid of inner city violence because it mirrors to us the violence we perpetuate in our own lives, communities, families and bodies. We are afraid of repeat offenders and prostitutes because they embody our own slavery to the patterns and behaviors that imprison and harm us be it rage, control, money, sex, drugs or food.

If I believe that the children in the halls and the men in the prisons and the girls alone with their babies in their homes are in need of fundamental healing, systemic change and spiritual redemption, then I must create a sustainable connection to them by sharing their same wounds.

It does not take economic poverty, sexual abuse or gang affiliation to share those wounds. It requires an honest connection to a deep and old spirit. The breeze blows everywhere and carries with it the same cry for belonging. And if we can acknowledge all of the things we do to be seen and to be accepted, we will identify with the violence that happens in our communities even if we have never seen a gun.

Every person has a story and we must go to the mountain tops and observe that each story feeds the greater narrative of what it is to be human. And we must be brave enough to acknowledge that the way we vote, the way we speak and the way we practice on our mats can either rob a person of their humanity or can restore it to them. And that when we act to restore another person’s humanity, we restore our own.

But the answer is not as simple as reading this post or participating in a training that is designed to help yoga teachers empower youth. It’s not in a lifetime of service or another non profit or selling all of your possessions or spending a year in India or the Bronx. It’s not about getting hyped up or welled up. The answer is not simple at all.

It is, maybe a little bit, about practice. It is sitting on the promenade and watching the mind over a carton of day old chinese. It is a moment in meditation. It is a day in the woods listening. It is dropping the scalpel we take to our souls when we say “this not that” about our own emotions, judgments and assumptions. It is looking at our own guilt and shame and saying “welcome, my old friend.”

This is not just our duty, it is our right. It is our right to occupy this space as healers of our spirits and of our communities. It’s not pride that is dangerous here, it is distrust of our own potential. The grander vision I take away with me this week is this: If seven days with twenty yogis can amount to the healing I experienced and observed, then the lifetimes of thousands of yogis together can change the world.

Lauren Znachko is our newest regular contributor to Yoga Modern. Please read more about her and return to read more of her writing by visiting her contributor page below.

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Lauren Znachko is a yogi and writer in Chicago. She travels to the jungle, lives in the city and although she begins each day with a cup of coffee and never leaves the house without her iphone, she finds at least a moment each day with the page and on the mat. The art of combining an embodied life experience and expressing that it with crafted word is what inspires her to teach and write in a way that brings unity to the many communities of which she is a part.

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