The 16-year-old boy did the crow pose better than anyone, in his black-and-white striped shirt, black jeans and black Nike sneakers. With his palms on the mat, he put his knees on the back of his triceps and lifted his feet off the floor.
“Great job!” Elizabeth Auten cheered as the teenager held the position. A social worker-turned-yoga instructor, Auten has been teaching at Argus House, an Arlington County group home for at-risk teenage boys, every Wednesday afternoon for the past six months.
Auten, 32, began practicing yoga three years ago. Shortly thereafter, she traveled to Jiquilillo, Nicaragua, to work with rural youth and made a discovery that she says helped her figure out what to do with her life.
“I started sharing yoga with them and found that was a great catalyst for other conversations,” she said. “As we worked on poses together, we could talk about life lessons and how to try something new that you’ve never tried before — how to be uncomfortable.”
In January 2012, she founded the Shakti Youth Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the philosophy that yoga can empower teenagers and foster connections between people of different backgrounds.
Auten’s students at Argus House, drawn from its Young Achievers program, were uncomfortable with yoga at first. They thought it was “for sissies,” she said, “just breathing and going ‘Ommm.’ ”
But they were willing to give it a try. “I really appreciated their openness,” Auten said.
One 14-year-old — new to the class but familiar with yoga — stood straight and then slowly bent backward, completing the upward bow pose. “I tried reading like this once,” he quipped. Next, his lanky arms touched the toes of his size 12 feet as he struck the full boat Pose.
“It’s kind of hard; it’s definitely more about your core strength,” he said. “Usually in your first days, you feel sore a little bit, but it starts to get easier and easier. You feel relaxed after you leave.”
A 13-year-old who is fond of handstands and inversions chimed in. “It stretches your body in ways I didn’t know it could stretch,” he said. “It’s very soothing.”
Auten credits the Young Achievers program — founded last fall to lend structure to the boys’ academic and personal development — for creating an environment in which the boys can be themselves. Probation counselor Manuel Vicens said Argus House chose yoga as an extracurricular activity because the staff wanted to “add elements to the program that are associated with improving academic performance.”
“I think that of all the programs we have, yoga will help us to accomplish that,” he said. “Yoga helps them relax, and relieves stress they’re feeling from home.”
Auten is energized by her work with the Young Achievers program. “I feel like there was a shift in my students, from ‘Eh, what is this stuff?’ to ‘When are you coming back?’ ” she said.
Her plans for the Shakti Youth Project are just beginning to unfold. In the fall, Auten will start working with Girls’ Outreach, a program for young women that is based at Argus House. She also plans to launch a mentorship program in conjunction with Little River Yoga, the Arlington yoga studio where she studies.
“I think yoga should be something that is available to everyone,” she said.
“It should connect different communities, so people who find that yoga helps empower them can share that with people they might not have had an opportunity to interact with otherwise.”