Yoga in the PRU

Alison Jennings first started practicing yoga at the age of 15 and was captivated by the spiritual aspects at an age when she was trying to make sense of the world. She says: ” I couldn’t really pinpoint the answers but I knew yoga offered me a deeper connection with myself. Having trained to teach yoga to teens in November 2013 I took some time to assimilate what I had learnt and gauge what I had to offer. This led me to work in Pupil Referral Units (PRU).”

Alison Jennings

Yoga for young people with behavioural or emotional difficulties.

“One April morning in South Wales I arrived at the Pupil Referral Unit filled with apprehension and determination – I had an hour to demonstrate the strength and power of this ancient practice we call yoga. The youngsters were sat outside smoking and swearing and making it perfectly clear they DID NOT want to be doing ‘yoga’. I had to find a way to dissolve their initial reticence. So rather than feeling intimidated (even though I was shaky inside) I stood my ground and invited them all to grab a mat and join me in the hall. Surprisingly they cooperated. Even more surprisingly to both their teachers and care workers, was the fact that they stayed on their mats, maintained their concentration and enthusiasm for a session of sun salutations, balancing asana, followed by a relaxation.

These were young people who had been kicked out of school for a variety of reasons, most of them relating to violence or addiction. They had never done yoga before, and resisted most structured and formal methods of education. But they got on their mats and they listened. They gained a sense of achievement when they could hold a plank or balance on one leg and grinned from ear to ear at how amazing they felt after a short yoga nidra. Surprised and elated I left the PRU that day in tears. I had reached a group of people whom most of society had washed their hands of. I had brought them back into their bodies, and grounded them for a short period.”

Classroom and Practical sessions

“I worked with some of those young people for about 8 months until they were old enough to leave education. There were days when aggression prevailed and flying chairs, overturned desks and many four-letter words were common. But my great teacher Charlotta Martinus had taught me a magical lesson – teach from a place in your heart and with consistency.”

Consistency and Aparigraha

“So, I continued to show up. I continued to offer yoga. It took me on a journey of my own self-discovery. I had to explore aparigraha (non attachment) in a completely new light. I wanted to heal these people, take them home and make them ‘better’. But I soon learned that my dharma was simply to consistently offer them tools – to understand themselves, trust themselves, respect themselves and others. I continued to overcome resilience and hostility by meeting them at their starting point. Amazingly taking yourself off your mat, diminishing your expectations about shape, form and process can take you to a much more creative view of yoga.”

Taking Yoga off the mat

“Initially we focused on naming muscles, joints or learning that simply letting go and surrendering to the ground in relaxation made body and mind clearer and calmer. We also spent some theory time in the classroom learning about yamas and niyamas – (codes of conduct and ethical practice). My most memorable and rewarding hour in the unit was sat with this group of young people listening to them shower compliments to one another embodying ahimsa (kindness to  oneself and others). For many of them giving a compliment to themselves or another person was an alien concept. We were slowly taking yoga off the mat and into their lives.”

Yoga in CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services)

“As my work at the PRU evolved I started to deliver yoga to youngsters with low self-esteem, anxiety and low mood. I am currently teaching yoga in a secure mental health unit in a hospital in South Wales. The unit is a place of hospitalisation and care for children aged between 11 and 18, who have a variety of mental health conditions. These young people might be suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, OCD, self-harm, psychosis or schizophrenia. This is my most challenging and enriching day of the week.”

Grounding techniques

There are children in the hospital from all backgrounds and walks of life. Often they are reluctant to participate in any activity. Yoga takes place in the hall, enrichment room or outdoor space. It is important to give stability to these young people – for some of them the fear of the unknown can feed their already fragile state of mind.

A typical session of teaching yoga in a mental health ward isn’t like walking into a plush studio filled with able-bodied students. My role, however, is to help the patients leave the yoga session feeling more able, more confident and more assured than when they arrived. They might gain a sense of ease with themselves. For many of them this is a daily struggle. Grounding techniques to bring students back to the body is often the primary focus.

Using terms and asana that transfer the awareness from head to feet, sky to earth along with strength building postures offer a safe space to explore being back in the human body.”

Inclusion is key

“I have one single consistent rule when offering yoga in these settings. That everyone is in the room is in some way participating. For some this is the simple task of removing shoes and sitting on a mat. Due to the nature of their illness they are often reluctant to engage. There have been students who have taken weeks to make eye contact and lift their heavy heads from their heavy hearts. Watching them eventually flow through a sun salutation and lift their hearts in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana or Urdhva Danurasana and open their hearts is a job reward which doesn’t really have words.”

Self Acceptance

“But of course yoga can offer so much more than a set of asana (poses). Self- acceptance can be a brilliant healing tool. As the students move through a yoga session they might slowly unravel some of the awkward and uncomfortable sensations they hold. Sometimes a breakthrough takes place in their ability to accept enjoyment. I spent a lot of energy finding a way to inspire them to open up so they can start to see light where darkness has prevailed. I understand that I have to foster a method that allows the students to see me as their teacher and at the same time a human being with faults and failings. We don’t always practice our yoga in silence. We don’t stick to the rules about how the mats are laid out or if we even need to stay on them. But collectively, through this amazing and fascinating thing we call YOGA we create an environment where we can just BE our wonderful and diverse selves.”

What the therapists say…

“The feedback from both the staff and children at the hospital is fantastic. Many of the patients go on to find yoga in their community when they are discharged. This empowers them and gives them a chance to find a sense of belonging. Many of the teachers and therapists are yoga students themselves and genuinely embody the aspects of yoga needed to heal and grow.”

Would you like to know more or interested in bringing yoga into a PRU? Register NOW to reserve your place at the Instill conference on 11 th November where Alison will be presenting a workshop on this topic.