The mere sight of red or blue clothing can set off flurry of gang hand signals.
But as somber-faced young women crouched forward recently, their foreheads resting on the gym floor, Mary Lynn Fitton, 44, and assistants from the Art of Yoga Project did the unthinkable: approached the girls from behind and massaged their shoulders and backs, hands slowly working down to the base of the spine.
Court-school educator Deborah Budesa watched the interaction with amazement. In 30 years of working with youth, she'd never seen anything like it. These girls would never let anyone touch them, she said. Such trust is not won easily.
But Fitton and the Art of Yoga instructors are trying to heal the whole girl. Trust is part of that healing.
The program combines yoga and creative arts to help at-risk adolescent girls develop healthy alternatives to violence, self-harm and substance abuse. By developing a relationship with their bodies, they develop accountability, said Fitton, a Palo Alto resident and the program's founder and executive director.
Fifteen wary young women had earlier filed into the gym. Eye contact was at a minimum. Young women who come are the privileged ones, referred by judges to be rehabilitated for significant substance-abuse, self-destructive behaviors, mental health issues and gang involvement, Budesa said.
Tall and trim, Fitton asked them to check in:
"Confused and lost."
"Emotionally, feel betrayed. Physically, good," they said.
She reads aloud a poem by Spanish poet Antonio Machado:
"... Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt -- marvelous error! --
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures. ..."
"What does he mean?" Fitton asked.
"That he accepts his past and looks toward his future," said Rachel, a small, dark-haired young woman who looked to be 17.
"That's right. You guys have potential for something new. You can make new honey from old failures," Fitton said.
"Yoga is a stretch -- physically and emotionally."
Fitton struck a hand bell, signaling time for practice to begin.
"Ommmm," the girls chanted, hands pointed skyward. In response to directions, they stretched, forming the cobra position.
A few of the girls took over, calling out positions. Part of the program is about taking ownership -- for oneself and of the community, Fitton said.
"Open your libro," Rachel called out, grinning. "Stretch your arms, and say hello to the sky. Do a push-up and do a cobra. You can do it ladies!"
"I can tell you this program is one of the most valuable things I've seen anyone do with at-risk youth. She can reach them in a way that we really can't. It's brought them together. And the art that she's done with them is not just art. It's looking inside themselves," Budesa said.
Fitton integrates art and writing projects into the program, bringing in guest artists to guide the young women through self-realization and positive self-image exercises. The art supplies are donated by individuals and businesses, such as University Art in Palo Alto, Fitton said.
The girls have drawn self-portraits, filled with energy. Some portraits express self-loathing, others project what they would like to be. Many incorporate images of women doing yoga.
The young women have also created body maps, outlines of their bodies into which they add pictures and words to describe themselves, and they've written positive messages to each other, Fitton said.
Ashley, 18, and Malia, 15, now look at themselves more favorably, they said. Ashley began yoga practice in October when she was still in juvenile hall.
Tall and athletic with long ginger-colored hair, she is upbeat, eyes sparkling.
"People say how they are really feeling. At the end (of yoga) they do a closing, expressing how you feel, and you change at the end," she said.
Malia concurred. Her face is soft, contradicting the tattooed symbols on her wrist that signifies her gang affiliation. She used to have difficulty managing anger and talking to people. Yoga and art have helped her to feel more relaxed around people and comfortable with herself, she said.
"When you draw it out," she said of her self-portrait, "it makes you feel like a beautiful person inside and out."
"We're teaching the practice of yoga -- stressing balance, breathing, focus and centering -- and trying to bring them to accountability to self, others and the community. ... (We're) bringing in breath work and meditation and making it practical -- taking it from the mat out into the world," Fitton said.
"When you have a court date, do some breathing techniques. You can do backbends for energy. It's a natural antidepressant."
Fitton began working with young women while at UCSF. In clinical practice, she saw young women struggle with having regrettable sex, self-loathing and depression and committing crimes.
At the time, she was also looking inside herself, studying meditation to fill a spiritual void. Yoga's precepts for living nonviolently, contentedly and without greed appealed to her as ways of teaching troubled girls referred from the Oregon juvenile justice system or foster care in Ashland. She developed the model for The Art of Yoga Project while there in 1998.
The curriculum came out of her own issues as a teen and 20-something, when she struggled with body image and the need to be impossibly thin and successful, she said. Yoga and journaling -- writing her thoughts and feelings -- helped get her beyond her own self-loathing.
"I want them to think, 'How are you stealing from yourselves?'" she said.
Fitton said she brings the same practice she used with the San Francisco 49ers when working with them at YogaSource in Palo Alto.
"(Yoga) breaks them down and gets rid of some of those pretenses and bravado, which is also found in gangs and also connects with the deepest part of themselves," she said.
Emotions sometimes spill onto the mats. In the stressful atmosphere of incarceration, someone will invariably have a meltdown in the classroom, Budesa said.
Then, one of the girls will yell, "Ommmm! Do an ommm!"
"And they will clench their fists and do it," she said.
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