Mirrors of Adolescence

The Empress card in The Wild Unknown Tarot depicts a tree under a crescent moon.  The tree stands, not unlike the proverbial Giving Tree, extending thick, sturdy branches skyward.  As though made of light, the luminous trunk tickles the sky with soft, deep pink leaves, embracing the moonlight, and thereby her own emotional nature.

When I began teaching yoga in an alternative high school, I imagined myself somewhat like this tree, moving with the same grounded aura through the halls toward my sanctuary-esque classroom.  In this dream, I provided shelter despite artificial lighting, warmth in spite of cold, gray tile floors, and I cultivated in my students the ability to examine their deepest, most personal places by sharing simple breathing techniques and yoga asana.  And all this I wanted within the first week of work.

In my musings, several assumptions had already been established: 1. My students would trust me.  2. My students would understand me.  3.  My students wanted to examine their deepest, most personal places.  4.  I was going to be responsible for all of it.  In other words, it was all about me.

At first, the struggle to keep them engaged was farcical.  Taking long, audible breaths while waving my arms slowly up and down, reassuring them it would “feel natural and even enjoyable soon,” I was more like a court jester than a resplendent maple tree.  I all but pried their crossed arms away from their just recently post-pubescent chests and had them stand in a circle to expose every area of physical self-consciousness to their peers, most of whom were strangers.  I cried every day as soon as I exited the parking lot and kneaded knots out of my shoulders at home.  The battle against nature had commenced.

Anticipating a crop of spontaneously blossoming yoga fanatics is as fruitless as planting a piece of gum into the ground.  What has become a wild love affair with the natural beauty of being a tender human for me has taken years of rollercoastering to develop.  I forgot that adolescence is beautiful like a cut of meat is beautiful; even foodies acknowledge the savagery in it.  Most of us prefer not to see the meat until it’s been prepared and dressed properly.  The inner landscape of teens is so raw and full of chaotic urges that I found myself gutted by it, and I was domesticating my students’ humanity rather than cultivating deep respect for it.

The change occurred one day, not surprisingly, when the Houston summer heat broke.  I took my students outside on the grass with one assignment: 1. Write down the five postures you like best, 2. Practice them.  They marched outside so precisely and lined up their mats like sentinels on the grass.  Amidst soft chatter and bouts of bathroom visits, there was a new atmosphere creating itself in which these young people felt free to be themselves and explore yoga, not as an assignment or another “you-must-do-this-or-else,” but a skill they were adapting and learning to wield skillfully.  Gone were the blank stares, the incessant comments and complaints.  Instead there were eager people, replete with smiles and insights, teaming up to guide each other through this new territory.

From each interaction with nature, some new awareness blooms into being: the tenderness of a painfully shy boy forced to listen to his parents and teachers expressing delight and relief about his having a “new friend” yields empathy; the ferocity within a girl being asked to fall in line and behave like she’s “supposed” to awakens my inner mama bear.  Where does this part of us come from?  In alchemy they say, ‘Tertium non data,’ the third is not given.

The need for love in all of them tills my insides and reminds me how unruly life can be, and how close to the surface that feeling of inner chaos lies.   But what is teaching if not standing in front of a mirror discovering the wild unknown within?  What are teenagers if not the wildest, densest, most treacherous territory?  I see in this soft light of awareness the side of me that wants to love more, really wants to be loved more – the adolescent on her way to being an Empress.