I teach yoga, but I never really think of myself as a “Teacher”. I just think of it as sharing the yoga with all different kinds of people.
Today I happened to be in a grammar school trailer in Newark (my alma mater) sharing yoga with fourth graders. We were in the middle of a Sun Breath when “Code Blue” was announced over the loudspeaker.
I looked at the teacher and asked him “Where do we go?”
He pointed to the corner where we would huddle and said, “This is not a drill.”
I wondered for a second if he was just saying that to make the kids behave, but the look on his face told me it was the truth.
So I sat there, cross-legged on the floor, knee to knee with all of the kids. One boy had his arms around a friend on either side. Both of those boys were sucking their thumbs. One boy was holding his crucifix necklace in his hands. One girl was rocking slightly back and forth. Two boys were trying to hold back giggles.
Self-regulating behaviors, I thought, as I chewed purposefully on my gum, and began my yogic breathing. .
We sat there for five minutes. And then it was ten.
Twenty minutes into it, the teacher looked at me and whispered, “This is not a drill. They haven’t come to check doorknobs. This is real.”
Real? This is real? Something is going on out there beyond that door. What’s going on out there? What’s happening? Somebody tell us what’s happening!
And then it started. My head flashed with images I had seen on the news after the Sandy Hook shooting. And the images I had conjured up in my mind; scared children, brave teachers, dead bodies. Images I had tried to distance myself from and rationalize away.
Suddenly all of the rational thinking I had done about mental health issues, violent video games, gun control laws, the yin and yang of the world, went right out the window. It became a visceral experience. I deepened my breath and tried to control my reaction, my gut reaction, which had me on the verge of tears.
Don’t start crying. Don’t start crying. Stop thinking about that. Put it away for now…
But these are our children. This is their reality. Huddled together in a corner on the floor. Wondering what is going on out there beyond the locked door. Waiting for the sound of the loudspeaker telling them the coast is clear.
Or the jiggle of the doorknob.
Or the sound of someone screaming.
These are our children. This is their world.
Twenty seven minutes later a voice called out to us. “Attention teachers: You can move around the building now, but no one will be allowed to go outside.”
I thanked them all for their time and congratulated them on being so well behaved. Explaining that their ability to sit still and focus means that they are true yogis. And then I walked out of the trailer to the main building for my next class.
Don’t think about it. Everything is fine. Stay in this moment. We’re going to do animal poses. The kids are gonna love it. Pull yourself, together, man!
When I walked in I could see that some of the children were upset. The teacher said hello to me and told me that they had a hard time with the Code Blue. She asked me to tell them what they could do while they were in lockdown mode to help them behave better. She said she wasn’t sure how to help them.
Oh shit. I’m the yoga teacher. I’m supposed to know what to say here. I don’t know what to say. I was just out in the trailers freaking out myself. Breathing my deepest yoga breaths to calm my crazy head, fighting back tears for every single child in our big-bloody-messed-up world.
And she saw it, the look of sheer terror on my face, the tears welling up in my eyes. She tried to save me. She threw me a line: “Maybe there is some sort of pose or breathing exercise you can do with us?”
I said, “I don’t know if I have any real words of wisdom, but I’ll try.”
We took a few deep breaths together and I told them to listen to their ocean breaths. Then we took a trip to the beach, imagining the sun on our faces, the sand between our toes…
Oh shit. This isn’t working. I’m having a delayed reaction to the huddling and it’s about to come out…
the smell of the salty ocean and the smell of sunscreen, the taste of cold watermelon on our tongues. And breathe. Listen to your breath… When I was finished, the teacher thanked me for taking them to the beach.
And to the children she said “The next time there is a Code Blue and you are hiding behind the bookshelves or standing in the closets…(The closets! They just had to stand in a dark closet for 27 minutes!! No wonder they are upset. Oh no…here it comes) you should just breathe and take a trip somewhere.” A trip somewhere? I need a trip somewhere right about now.
She thanked me, and smiled warmly at me. We bowed to each other, and said our Namastes. I walked out of the room and made a beeline for the restroom. Where I closed myself in a stall, and cried.
This is their reality. This shit is real for them.
I AM a teacher. And that shit is real for me now, too.