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Yoga helps some Ohio at-risk youth manage emotions

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — This is not the typical yoga class.

The students are wearing baggy jeans, not form-fitting yoga pants. The music in the background is hip-hop and pop, not new-age instrumental. There's constant laughter and chatter — "Stretches are hard," one teenager complains — and friendly teasing about passing gas and taking naps.

It's a class for at-risk youths who live in a shelter for runaways, and the easy vibe so often present in pricey yoga studios has no place here.

This class is at Huckleberry House, a nonprofit shelter for teenagers. Candy McDowall, a former Huckleberry House counselor, has been teaching the weekly classes there for six months.

McDowall came back to Huckleberry House after taking training through Yoga Gangsters, a nonprofit organization that tries to take yoga to at-risk people. She teaches the classes as a volunteer.

Each class has a different mix of kids, because each week, new kids arrive at and leave Huckleberry House. McDowall bantered right back with the five teens in one recent class, but she's also keenly aware of her role.

Many of the Huckleberry House residents are there because an adult has beaten them up or sexually assaulted them, and they might be nervous about another adult touching them. Some are there because they can't get along with their parents, and might have trouble listening to grown-ups telling them what to do.

McDowall deals with that by keeping her yoga classes loose: The kids move through the poses at their own pace, and they don't always follow strict yogic positions. She doesn't touch anyone until they tell her it's OK.

The program that McDowall brought to Columbus was founded by her sister, Terri Cooper, in 2008 in Miami. The intent is to use yoga to help people in crisis.

Yoga Gangsters now includes classes in shelters, prisons and hospitals in Miami, Las Vegas and Phoenix. The Huckleberry House class is the only one in Columbus.

The goal is to give at-risk teenagers, some of whom are prone to impulsive outbursts of anger, a technique to help them manage their emotions.

"I get mad easily," said one teenage girl staying at Huckleberry House. "So if I feel myself start to get mad, I try to take a deep breath. After yoga, I feel like all the stress has gone out of me."

Huckleberry House asked The Dispatch not to identify the teenagers because some of them could be in danger if people knew where they were.

Counselors hope that yoga will affect the other teenagers who stay at the shelter as well.

"These kids, they don't have time to think about themselves, to get into their own heads and their own bodies," said Melanie Gunther, crisis-program team leader at Huckleberry House. "This is an additional coping skill that they can take with them."

To the kids, though, yoga mainly is about headstands and stretches with funny names.

Toward the end of a recent class, the teenagers pushed their legs over their heads and balanced on their hands and crowns. A teenage boy held his headstand as the other kids counted and cheered, and he then started doing pushups from his handstand.

The other kids applauded; the boy flipped over, stood and grinned.

Most yoga classes end with savasana, a pose meant to bring total relaxation to a yogi's body. But in this class, McDowall dimmed the lights in the Huckleberry House foyer and told the kids to lie on their mats. One sprawled flat on his abdomen, others curled into the fetal position.

"I want you to picture the person you love most in the world, the person who loves you more than any other person, and I want you to imagine that that person is walking toward you and wraps you in the biggest hug," McDowall said.

One of the teens started to cry at the thought.

"The feeling you have right now, of all of the love, and all of the strength ... you already have it inside you," McDowall told them. "And when people tell you that you can't do something, you already know that you can."

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