A new initiative to teach yoga and mindfulness to troubled youth is effecting remarkable change. Don Rowe visits with Atawhai, a new initiative from Kristina Cavit and The Kindness Institute, ahead of their inaugural end-of-programme event this Sunday.
In a small room off the Point Chevalier Community Centre in Auckland, miracles are taking place. One by one, in a circle, rangatahi from various broken homes, youth offender programmes and other difficult backgrounds are expressing their gratitude for everything from a ride home to new friends. Two girls, strangers as of a couple days ago, have just performed a dance together, followed by a guided meditation led by one of their peers. The air is thick with positivity and contagious optimism. It’s day three of Atawhai, a week-long intensive programme that aims to teach youth tools for forgiveness, stress management and how to overcome challenges ‘when shit hits the fan’. The progress is remarkable.
More than a past-time for the middle class, or some exotic eastern curiosity, mindfulness meditation and yoga are special for their efficacy in creating emotional space, in which reflection, introspection and emotional healing can take place. After an hour and a half of practice every morning, the rangatahi are grouped with mentors like poet Dom Hoey (Tourettes) and rapper Todd Williams (Louie Knuxx) to explore their learnings, and to work on a way in which they can pass that knowledge along at their end of programme event this Sunday. Then, at the end of the day, they come together to reflect.
I spoke with aspiring rapper Mike and mentor Todd ahead of their afternoon gratitude session – something I personally felt incredibly grateful to have been apart of.
The Spinoff: Mike, had you heard of yoga and meditation before this course?
Mike: I’d heard of it but I’d never done it. I thought it was a bit buzzy. I’d done stretching before and that kind of thing, just through martial arts and stuff, but not yoga.
What did you think about the meditation?
M: It was good, for me it’s like I just leave my thoughts at the door and just clear my mind a bit.
Do you get into it Todd?
Todd: Yeah, I first did it with Kristina at a programme ages ago, and I was actually quite opposed to it at first. But the young people on the programme set me a good example and then I participated and really took to liking it. I used to have quite a uptight girlfriend, and the first time I meditated on my own I went straight from meditating into one of her dramas and that’s how I got sold on it. I was just like ‘this is ok, it’s alright’, and I thought ‘fuck, this meditation shit is good.’
Heaps of the young people I work with have come from really stressful environments, and they find themselves in really stressful situations and I was much like that myself. I can’t imagine what a help it would have been if I knew how to de-stress myself, and give myself that kind of time. It would have been quite an amazing tool to have and I think it’s really good for them.
It’s funny eh, it’s one thing for some pampered rich dude to have their five minutes to de-stress, but it’s a whole different story when it’s directly applicable to intensely stressful real life situations where there often isn’t a physical escape. So with your art, your rapping, do you find it’s easier to be creative and relaxed with these tools?
M: Yeah, having a clear head and stuff, it’s good for writing. [My raps are] kind of inspirational sort of stuff. For my presentation I’m actually doing a rap about yoga and breathing and stuff.
T: It’s pretty incredible. I’ve worked with lots of young people who want to rap, a good percentage of the young people I’ve worked with want to rap, and often it’s really hard to develop the writing with them. But Mike’s been writing heaps and has recorded a whole bunch. He did so much in the programme we just did. And then his ability to comprehend and understand things. The first day of programme was the first time he did yoga and mindfulness, and by the next morning he had a whole rap written about yoga and mindfulness. Obviously I’ve been writing raps for like 20 years or longer, and if someone asked me to rap about yoga and mindfulness, I wouldn’t have been able to do it as well as he did. It was a really good indicator of what he’d grasped in here, and how quickly he’d grasped the concept. It was really incredible.
It’s kind of like when I write a story. If you understand it and you’re passionate about it, it almost falls out of you, it’s just so easy. Did it feel like that?
M: Yeah, I just mixed it all up and stuff.
And what if you tried to write it a week ago?
M: It would have been a whole lot harder.
When do you write?
M: When I’m bored, when I’m stressed, it’s like a tool sometimes. Like meditation.
It is kind of a form of meditation right? You have to get out of your own way to make it work.
M: Yea I just get a pen and paper, play the music once, and then it’s in my head.
T: It’s an interesting style of writing eh, not many people do it that way. I’ve only met a couple people who can do it without the beat playing, and then I met Mike.
So what’s so effective about this programme compared to some of the others you’ve been involved with?
T: I think the focus being on the mediation and yoga takes heaps of pressure off everything else. What Kristina wants, and what we want, for the young people is to get as much as they can out of that. Creating something for the event or presenting something for the event is really secondary to that, and it takes the pressure off. We’re really focussed on the young people having that group and the positive experience so that they can take something from it. Some of that might come from what they present, but most of it will come from what we’re doing here during the week.
So it’s an hour and a half every morning – that’s quite a long time. Did you find it hard at first to stay focused?
M: Yea, and then like the next day I was used to it.
T: I do it at the same time, and I think a real big part of it as a mentor is that doing the yoga and meditation forces you to be patient. I’m here and I’m trying to set an example for these fullas. I participate in everything, whereas if I had the opportunity to do this otherwise, maybe I wouldn’t.
Mike, do you reckon you’d recommend yoga or meditation to your mates?
Yea, maybe one day. They’d probably say ‘That’s weird’, probably think I’m pretty weird. Probably think it’s bullshit.
So why didn’t you think it was bullshit?
M: My old martial arts teacher he used to do stuff that was kind of like this. He didn’t call it meditation but he did stretching and focusing on the breath and I liked that. I thought I’d give this a try. [The other day] I was angry at home with my brother, and I just used the breathing techniques and calmed down, and it got me relaxed.
T: One of the biggest messages that I get through the practice is one of being kind to yourself so you can in turn be kind to others, which I think is really, really cool. You get told things, and things are reinforced through the practice that young people need to hear that they normally don’t. Nobody tells you when you’re young to be nice to yourself, and to be kind to yourself. Isn’t that weird? It’s a concept that we’re not really introduced to. You could go your whole life without being introduced to that.
In Mike’s case, he’s had a pretty difficult time the last couple years and he needs a break. I think perhaps the first part of that is giving himself a break. And knowing that he deserves that break.
How has your self-image changed?
M: I reckon I’ve changed a bit. I used to never talk to people as much, just quiet. I’m still quiet, but yea. I reckon I’ve gotten a bit more confident.
T: For example, Mike and I just spent two and a half months together at another programme I work at. Mike didn’t really start having conversations with me until the end of the programme, right at the very end. Then the first day we’re here, at the end of the day everyone has to share something they’re grateful for. Kristina said ‘Ok, who wants to share something?’ and Mike said ‘Me’. I nearly fell out of my fucken chair. There’s like 20 new people he doesn’t know, and I did a double take to make sure that it was him that said it. I know that might seem small to other people but to me I thought it was incredible, and a huge indicator of his development. I mean right now, he’s talking to you for example. Today we met someone who’s giving him some work experience would could lead to a potential job, and there’s just all this cool stuff happening for Mike and this is a big part of it. This is the vehicle for it.
Did you think about it or did it just come out?
M: I dunno, I just wanted to give it a try. It felt pretty good, for me it was good.
T: It was such a big deal to me, pretty much immediately after the programme I was messaging people from work – Mike you don’t know this – but I was like ‘Holy shit, there was a group share and Mike volunteered to speak first!’ and they were like ‘Wow!’
M: Yeah, we all close our eyes and meditate and think about the things we’re grateful for. Now I have like a whole list of things that I was grateful for. I reckon just meeting new people, people who want to help young people like me, taking time off to help and to teach us these tools. It’s real good eh.
Atawhai – Kindness in Action: Sunday April 23rd, Ponsonby Community Center. Tickets available here.
The Kindness Institute’s Kristina Cavitt is the author of The Spinoff’s new mental health series, Getting Your Shit Together; her next column will be published next week.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.