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The Contested Discourses of Yoga, Youth, and Urban Schooling: Paradox and Possibility

by Janet D. Johnson - 2020

Background/Context: Yoga, as a recent cultural phenomenon in the United States, is often marketed as a way to relieve stress and anxiety. This has led to yoga becoming widespread in schools, particularly schools that serve low income youth of color. While some advocates argue that yoga can help students navigate highly controlled, standards-based school environments, others assert that yoga is being used as a tool for student compliance rather than liberation.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study addresses the tensions between schooling discourses and yoga discourses, and how youth use their own discourses and agency to navigate those complications.

Setting/Population: This study took place in an alternative high school program for students who were in danger of not graduating because they had too few credits. Reflecting the community, the participants were low income youth of color.

Research Design: In this yearlong critical qualitative study, I served as an observer for weekly yoga classes at the school, interviewed the student participants during the fall and the spring, and interviewed the yoga teacher and classroom teacher during the fall and spring. I kept a field journal and wrote memos after every class and analyzed the data from the observations and interviews using critical discourse analysis.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Even as yoga may serve as a counternarrative to schooling discourses, it is only with intention and practice that it does not reify narratives of power and patriarchy. This is particularly true when the participants themselves may replicate these narratives, such as the participantsí complex use of heteronormative masculine discourses. For yoga to be liberatory in schools, the following aspects should be included: a sense of community where all students feel valued, classroom teacher participation, explicit instruction in the discourses of yoga around acceptance and compassion for oneself and others, and acknowledging school and youth discourses around sports and heteronormativity.

Almost every person I meet who regularly practices yoga, including yoga teachers and researchers who work in schools, refers to yoga as life-changing. Seventy-five percent of Americans think that yoga is “good for you” and 73% agree that yoga relieves stress (Ipsos, 2016). This belief in the power of yoga is borne out through sheer numbers: over 36.7 million people practiced yoga in the United States in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012. Seventy-two percent of practitioners are women, 70% have some college education (Khalsa, 2016), and 80% are white (Murphy, 2014). There are yoga rooms in several U.S. airports, including in San Francisco and Chicago, and yoga is used to sell everything from food products to sleep medications. Yoga, broadly defined, has become a cultural phenomenon—albeit mostly available to able-bodied, white, middle class, educated women. Now a 27 billion dollar industry (Berila, 2016) that is often marketed as a way to counteract stress and anxiety, some critics argue that yoga marketing reifies dominant narratives around race, class, ableism, and sexism, instead of serving as a liberatory practice (Berila, 2016; Horton 2016).

The increase in yoga’s popularity has resulted in its language and practices becoming widespread in schools, particularly schools that serve low-income youth of color. School yoga advocates insist that yoga can support students as they encounter the demands of today’s public schools (Butzer, Bury, Telles, & Khalsa, 2016). However, the way yoga is often taught and researched in schools echoes problems of oppression, with yoga being implicated as a tool for student compliance rather than liberation in highly controlled, standards-based school environments resulting from neoliberal educational policies.

In this paper, I argue that yoga can be a liberatory practice in schools only if it is taught in a culturally responsive way. This means attending to the discourses of young people, while also addressing how educational policies that frame these students in deficit ways affect their self-perceptions and experiences in school. Using discourse theory, critical race theory (CRT), and intersectionality, I analyze the problems and possibilities of the relationships among yoga, school, and low-income youth of color.

Yoga can be used to reify policies and beliefs that position youth of color in deficit ways, or it can serve to support individual and collective transformation¾ and perhaps it does both. In addressing the overlaps and tensions among the discourses based in the different ontologies within and between schooling and yoga, this critical qualitative study focuses on the micro: a specific classroom context in a high school in the Northeast with a large population of low-income youth of color. Through observations of a yearlong weekly yoga class, interviews with the yoga teacher and classroom teacher who are white, as am I, and student participants, most of whom are Latinx young men, I found that the students used their own discourses to enact, resist, and complicate conflicting narratives of schooling and yoga. The complexities of this unique setting have implications for the impact and universality of larger macro discourses around low-income youth of color and yoga in schools.  


After delving into the small but growing literature and attending a conference on yoga in schools, I was surprised to see that most research was based in the medical field, which meant the studies were overwhelmingly quantitative and positivist. It seemed that a critical qualitative research study would be one way to enrich the growing conversations around yoga in schools and address my concerns regarding how yoga service providers, researchers, and school personnel were positioning students whom they felt needed yoga. Carol Horton noted that because school yoga advocates have had to argue that yoga does not violate laws regarding church vs. state, as in the case of Sedlock v. Encinitas, yoga in schools is often now reduced to “simply another exercise program with some extra stretching and breathing thrown in” (2016, p. 110). Indeed, in explaining his decision in favor of the Encinitas school district, the presiding judge likened yoga to dodgeball. Horton wrote, “Reducing yoga to a mechanistic exercise with some added behavior benefits eviscerates its true holistic potential, while reinforcing the impoverished understanding of education that dominates our public school system” (p. 110). This has been true of other progressive instructional tools and practices that were originally rooted in Deweyan theories about educating the whole child. According to Ladson-Billings (1998), multicultural education, cooperative learning, and writing workshop, among other progressive, holistic practices, have a history of being co-opted and standardized, maintaining only shadows of their originators’ intentions for diversity awareness, collaboration, and creativity, respectively. The use of progressive discourses and social justice language obscures educational and social policies that lead to standardization and instrumentation (Saltman, 2014).

Yoga advocates like myself, who believe that yoga for youth can and should be anti-oppressive and liberatory, need to be clear about our intentions and reflective about the complexities of bringing yoga into schools to ensure that this co-optation does not happen. For some advocates, schools are places where the benefits of yoga can expand beyond privileged white folk. Sat Bir Khalsa, one of the leading yoga researchers in the United States, argued that the way to bring yoga to the general public instead of a select few is to provide it in schools (2016). Others have suggested that, because schools act as sites of socialization and institutionalization regarding race, class, and gender (Nygreen, 2013), yoga may reify cultural stereotypes in regard to bodies and behaviors. Yoga has become part of the wellness industrial complex (Delaney, 2016) with ads featuring young, slender white women whose bodies conform to current standards of beauty and health (i.e., “fit”), so many youth, especially those of color, may not see themselves as potential yogis. The emphasis on self-regulation, calmness, and interiority could also be seen as ways to require youth of color to act more white (Emdin, 2016), to exert direct control over their bodies (Saltman, 2014), and to “police his or her emotions in the interest of neoliberal, globalized capitalism” (Boler, 1999, p. xxii).  


Historically, schooling discourses have addressed only the cognitive aspects of the mind, ignoring the emotional (Boler, 1999) and physical (Orr, 2002). This Cartesian split could contribute to hegemonic discourses that rely on reason and social control to preserve the status quo. In the current educational context, school success is measured by student test scores and generic systems that do not take into account nuances of student populations, teacher identities, and socioeconomic influences (Ravitch, 2010). Schooling discourses inscribe identities, not just academic skills, as students absorb explicit and implicit messages about who they are and what they are capable of from the hidden curriculum and social hierarchies, which mirror the larger society (Nygreen, 2013). Students labeled as “at-risk,” like the youth in this study, are put into basic learning classes or other special programs, disproportionately suspended from school, and drop out of school at higher rates than their similarly aged peers (Campos, 2013; Emdin 2016). This is particularly true for youth of color, who are perceived as academically and socially inferior and more likely to be categorized as troubled or diagnosed with learning or behavior disorders (Emdin, 2016; Paris & Winn, 2014).

Marginalized youth are particularly affected by the language of efficiency and accountability that dominates current schooling discourses (Desai, 2015). Teachers are under significant pressure to cover curriculum and prepare students for tests, which can make it difficult to validate the use of yoga during the school day, except in terms of interest convergence. Interest convergence is when gains for people of color happen only when these gains are beneficial for whites too (Ladson-Billings, 1998). In this case, yoga gets justified as a way to prepare youth to engage in the very practices of schooling that make them most vulnerable: participating in a reductive curriculum and behaving according to norms that marginalize them (Boler, 1999; Emdin, 2016; Nolan, 2011).


In contrast to the current patriarchal, competitive discourses of schooling, hatha yoga takes a holistic approach by connecting the physical, psychological, and cognitive, emphasizing how experience and emotion are enacted in the body (Freeman, 2010). The word yoga means “yoke” or “union,” addressing and uniting concepts that have been traditionally separated in western science and schooling, such as body, mind, and heart, or the spiritual and material. For the purposes of this research, yoga consists of a system of mind-body techniques including physical postures, conscious breathing, and deep relaxation, plus kind awareness on the present, often called mindfulness (Hyde & Johnson, 2019).

However, bodies, like minds, are not neutral sites. Azzarito pointed out that the current health/exercise emphasis on fit bodies is framed in terms of whiteness, which “not only decontextualizes and homogenizes ethnic minority young people’s body experiences, but indeed, dangerously colonizes their bodies to ideals of whiteness embedded in Western societies” (2012, p. 295).  The exclusion of images of bodies of color, curvy, queer, or trans bodies of men or women in popular culture contains mixed messages, especially for youth who may be experiencing yoga for the first time in schools. Indeed, instead of serving as a counternarrative, then, yoga may reify dominant narratives of heteronormativity, whiteness, fitness, and competition, all in the name of good health.

Another debate in the world of school yoga revolves around the explicit use of spiritual terms in the practice. Some yoga advocates (Brook, 2019; Flynn, 2019; Holistic Life Foundation, 2016) have argued that yoga can be effective without using the spiritual discourses in many yoga studios (i.e., Sanskrit language; Indian iconography). Flynn noted that she had to change her teaching from studio to classroom to accommodate issues of space (no place for spreading out yoga mats), time (fitting yoga into an already over-scheduled day), and language, noting that using Sanskrit terms could be seen as esoteric, if not religious. Brook wrote:

While I find this spiritual aspect of yoga meaningful, I don’t feel that my public school students are somehow getting “lesser” yoga than those I teach at a yoga studio, where I have freedom to share more spiritual yoga philosophy. By all accounts, the school-ready yoga and mindfulness practices I was sharing in the classroom provided the same benefits as a studio class: self-awareness, self-management tools, social skills, improved focus and behavior (2016, p. 153-54).

These teachers and practitioners were willing to accommodate school discourses because they felt students would benefit regardless of whether the spiritual aspects of the yoga practice were named or emphasized. Others, like Horton (2016) would argue that leaving the spiritual out of yoga is complying with reductionist views of students and schooling.

For me, this is where the both/and comes in: yoga in school can offer students tools and practices to skillfully address the challenges they face in school and life; and yet it may also serve to help them to accept inequitable and even hostile school environments. Yoga service providers believe in the power of yoga to offer young people everything it offers them: a more peaceful mind, compassion toward self and others, and awareness of emotional and bodily sensations. The question remains whether these qualities support student agency when they occur within the often oppressive discourses of today’s public schools.


Since dominant discourses in school rest on the assumption that instruction and curriculum are race-neutral instead of grounded in whiteness (Nygreen, 2013; Saltman, 2014), when youth of color do not succeed, they are deemed individually deficient. This has led to a focus on “grit,” whose adherents theorize that problems of poverty, such as low school attendance and poor test scores in school, can be overcome by self-discipline. Saltman wrote, “‘Grit’ is a pedagogy of control that is predicated upon a promise made to poor children that if they learn the tools of self-control and learn to endure drudgery, they can compete with rich children for scarce economic resources” (2014, p. 43). Perry asserted that this focus on the internal does not address historical systems of disparity: “Certainly we need to help youths cope with poor-performing systems, but the elevation of soft skills as the new way forward to improve outcomes for youths of color essentially encourages them to adapt to inequality” (2016, p. 3). Saltman further argued that discourses of grit “actively produce knowledge, forms of selfhood, and political affiliation at odds with self and social criticism and reflection that can form the basis for interpretation and intervention” (p. 44). In current mindfulness and yoga terminology, the word “resilience” is used instead of “grit,” but it means something similar: that an individual can call on internal resources to overcome external barriers. However, this emphasis on addressing perceived individual deficiencies, similar to theories of grit, elides hegemonic systems and collective experiences of oppression.

Many current practices and research studies emphasize how yoga helps students focus on their academic tasks and self-regulate their emotions, as well as building resilience (Greenberg & Harris, 2012; Noggle, Steiner, Minami, & Khalsa, 2012). While this is not surprising, given that it is how yoga in schools is often justified and funded, this approach implicates yoga as another way to control youth, especially those perceived as having problems with attention, behavior, or academics. This is particularly true for youth in high-poverty, clinical, and adjudicated settings (Ramadoss and Bose, 2010). Yoga, then, may be used¾ inadvertently or not¾ to reinforce student compliance in schools governed by rules of power and authority (Boler, 1999) and that rely on highly scripted, standardized curricula resulting from neoliberal political and economic policies (Nolan, 2011). When students resist these policies through oppositional behavior, they are positioned as needing self-regulation or social emotional learning (SEL), instead of as agents attempting to maintain their identities through objecting to dehumanizing policies (Nolan, 2011). Thus, the yoga-as-tool discourse may reify existing deficit discourses about youth of color and reinforce these punitive policies.

A Counternarrative to Grit

Other scholars argue that yoga in schools can be seen as a counternarrative to these discourses and policies in two distinct ways: each person is valued for what s/he offers, and each person is capable of meeting the physical and emotional challenges of yoga (Orr, 2002). This focus on the self can become more global with yoga serving as a vehicle for increasing social responsibility, improving relationships, and providing a sense of purpose (Khalsa, 2016). Orr suggested that yoga can be used as an anti-oppressive pedagogical tool, to

address oppressive ideologies and practices in the lives of students and thereby foster change not only on the intellectual level of a student’s learning but also on the levels of body, emotion, and spirit, the levels where the most insidious and resistant formations of oppression are often lodged (2002, p. 480).

Orr argued that yoga is not just another fitness regime; it cannot be likened to “dodgeball,” as suggested by the judge in the Encinitas case (Horton, 2016). For many yoga advocates, yoga is more than another wellness or resilience initiative because it incorporates the heart as well as the mind and body.


Because the participants in this study were low-income youth of color who had been forced to leave the regular school setting, usually for high absenteeism or behavioral reasons, I focus on studies that address the discourses of this population. Emdin noted that school systems “position black and brown boys as loud, abrasive, and unteachable” (2016, p. 66), and Nolan, following Goffman (1961), wrote that the youth use these oppositional behaviors as a way to speak back to unjust policies. Instead of seeing these behaviors as pathological, we can reframe them as resistance to, and interrogation of, social and educational policies. She wrote, “disruption became a means through which students created ruptures in the highly controlled environment . . . they constructed a valued identity in opposition to prescribed school norms” (2011, p. 565). Nolan found that these behaviors were not random, nor did they typically demonstrate a lack of self-control. Instead, the youth were usually acting for a purpose: to maintain a sense of identity and dignity within a system that attempted to strip it away. She also noted that the participants paid a high price, in that these behaviors reinforced the social hierarchy, but that the youth did not see any alternative.

Similarly, Plank, McDill, McPartland, and Jordan (2001) conducted a study on civility and incivility in schools through analyzing when and why students cursed among each other and at teachers. They found that students knew when it was inappropriate to swear but had seen their classmates swear at teachers who tried to enforce a rule that didn’t make sense to them. One student wrote, “Students would curse a teacher who is trying to take something or show authority” (Plank, et al., p. 515). The authors found that the organization of schools affects teacher-student interactions and relationships, and that students usually understood the discourses of schooling but chose not to act in sanctioned ways if they felt disrespected. They wrote, “when [students] perceive that their rights are being violated, that due respect is not being offered, or that they can break rules without consequences, they are likely to curse and to violate teachers’ expectations and guidelines” (p. 517).

The youth in this current study told stories about how they reacted when they felt disrespected by teachers and were clearly reflective and deliberate, as Nolan (2011) and Plank, et al. (2001) documented above. In middle school, Eddie, one of the participants in this research, was told by a teacher that he would always be a failure. He reacted by swearing and making a rude gesture toward the teacher. He believed he had been disrespected and used the tools he had to respond. As Cushman noted, many educators and researchers position marginalized populations “by what they do not have, do not do, do not measure up to” (1998, p. xix), which is evident in current narratives of grit and resilience. This research seeks to remedy that by explicitly naming and describing the youths’ discourses and forms of resilience and grit, often couched as resistance to schooling practices, in the context of school and the yoga class. I would characterize Eddie’s speaking back to a teacher’s labeling him as a failure was actually an important form of grit, in the sense that he actively resisted how he was positioned in order to maintain his self-respect. This may not be what purveyors of grit narratives had in mind, but his willingness to speak up for himself and take his punishment echoes the stories of other participants and in the literature (Nolan, 2011; Plank, et al., 2001).


I draw on discourse theories (Gee, 1999; Fairclough, 1995; Rogers, 2004) to demonstrate how the youth in this study used their own discourses to both accept and resist dominant discourses of yoga and schooling. CRT (Ladson-Billings, 1998; Yosso, 2005) offers the useful frame of counternarratives to show how the youth used their discourses to resist their positioning in schools. Because of the tensions within and among schooling, yoga, and youth discourses, I use intersectionality (Hill-Collins & Bilge, 2016) as a way to show the both/and nature of the students’ talk and actions as they sought to maintain their integrity within these contested spaces.


Discourses are made up of language and social practices (Fairclough, 1995; Gee, 1999; Rogers, 2011) and play a role in constituting and mediating experience, knowledge, and identity (Gee, 2005). Fairclough argued that “language use [is] a form of social practice,” and thus “Discourse is a practice not just of representing the world, but of signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning” (Fairclough, 1992, p. 67). Rogers noted that discourse is not an artifact but rather “a set of consumptive, productive, distributive and reproductive processes that exist in relation to the social world” (2011, p. 6).

As social practices, discourses are dynamic and dialectic, in that participants do not just absorb and parrot them but can resist and perhaps change them. Even as discourses can be fluid, dominant discourses that include the “moral/religious, scientific/medical, and rational discourses of emotion” (Boler, 1999, p. xvii) have the power to perpetuate norms that position some to have power over others. In many American public schools, these dominant discourses privilege the white, Christian, middle class, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied in both the actual curriculum and the hidden curriculum.

Power in schools is achieved in multiple ways, including normative power, in which a subordinate consents to a superordinate due to cultural norms embedded in discourses. Fairclough wrote:

It is an age in which the production and reproduction of the social order depend increasingly upon practices and processes of a broadly cultural nature. Part of this development is an enhanced role for language and the exercise of power: it is mainly in discourse that consent is achieved, ideologies are transmitted, and practices, meanings, values and identities are taught and learnt (1995, p. 219).

Discourses, then, convey power through the development and expectations of what is anticipated and accepted through language, social practices, norms, and hierarchical relationships. As noted in the literature (Flynn, 2019; Horton, 2016), yoga discourses diverge from school discourses of power, and yet can be used to support dominant discourses, often unintentionally. These entanglements are further complicated when youth bring in their own discourses, for example, regarding sexuality and sports, into the yoga class. The boys in this study both absorbed and resisted the dominant discourses of schooling and the discourses of yoga, depending on the context. Their resistance to perceived authority, practiced for years in school, sometimes continued onto the yoga mat.


CRT addresses whiteness as a dominant discourse by naming racism as systemic in American society, as opposed to being confined to individual beliefs and actions. Naming whiteness as normal—and by extension, all other races and cultures as not normal—perpetuates certain stories as legitimate while ignoring others: “the dominant group justifies its power with stories, stock explanations, that construct reality in ways that maintain their privilege. Thus, oppression is rationalized, causing little self-examination by the oppressor” (Ladson-Billings, 1998, p. 14). CRT creates space for counternarratives to dominant stories, demonstrating that there is no such thing as objectivity in terms of lived experience. The youth in this study rejected how they were positioned in school as troublemakers and offered powerful counternarratives to that frame through active and passive resistance.

In keeping with the CRT focus on counternarratives to dominant discourses, I take up Yosso’s (2005) framing of people of color’s opposition to school as resistant capital. Resistant capital includes knowledge and skills fostered through challenging inequities experienced in school. Low-income youth of color who see the oppressive, colonizing aspects of schooling and talk back to those systems—in covert and overt ways¾ are using resistant capital, or what could also be called grit or resilience in the face of systems that demean them. The youth in this research, such as Eddie speaking out against his middle school teacher, demonstrated this resistant capital. In framing their oppositional behaviors, or what Meiners (2007) called “outlaw emotions,” as capital, I am taking an asset-based perspective, while attempting to make sure I do not romanticize their behavior. After all, Eddie and the other participants in this study paid a high price for their rejection of school, in that they were kicked out of their regular classes (Nolan, 2011).


Theories of intersectionality provide opportunities to explore multiple facets of identities, discourses, and practices. Because this research addresses race, gender, and to a lesser extent, social class, intersectionality offers a useful framework to encompass the layers and tensions among these already fluid categories. Hill-Collins and Bilge wrote:

Intersectionality is a way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experiences . . . When it comes to social inequality, people’s lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as not being shaped by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other (2016, p. 2).

Intersectionality rejects easy answers and either/or thinking in favor of both/and. The youth in this study were disenfranchised as working class youth of color, and yet also relied on hegemonic masculinity (Connell, 1996; Pascoe, 2012) to maintain some power within their worlds. So even as they were framed as failures from a class and race perspective, their status as young men provided them with opportunities to sexualize, and thus maintain power, with the girls and women in school.

Another demonstration of intersectionality’s both/and motif occurs with the very action of bringing yoga into the public school environment. As the literature indicates (Hyde & Johnson, 2019), yoga in schools is often used as a tool for social control AND a vehicle for self-empowerment. However, the key determinants as to where yoga falls on the spectrum between the two depends on the intentions of those in power, whether youth discourses are acknowledged and valued, and recognition of how schools position youth. As noted earlier, some research emphasizes how yoga can address a perceived problem with individual student behavior (i.e., lack of grit or resilience) and help students comply with dominant discourses of schooling. However, these same practices have the potential to heal the Cartesian split between mind and body, perhaps offering students useful ways to resist systemic oppressive schooling ideologies.


As a qualitative researcher, I am interested in the non-quantifiable aspects of social life: the parts that require regular observation, talking with participants, and data analysis and interpretation with input from participants and peers. As a criticalist, I see research as a way to refine social theory, not just observe participants in particular situations or contexts. Carspecken wrote:

The precise nature of oppression . . . is an empirical question and not a given belief. Much of our research attempts to clarify how and where oppression works. This is not a straightforward matter, since the identities, the forms of thinking, and the beliefs of people are all ensnared within oppressive relations (1996, p. 8).

Thus, this study seeks to “clarify how and where oppression works” when yoga is brought into schools through exploring the following questions:

-What are some benefits and pitfalls to bringing yoga into schools?

-How do the discourses of youth of color complicate yoga discourses in schools?


During the 2014-15 school year, an outside provider, MindfulKids (MK), offered yoga to students in an Alternative Pathways to Graduation (APG) program at Blackstone River High School (BRHS), located in a district where the median income is half that of the state. Student ethnicities were 85% youth of color and 22% emergent bilingual with an 81% graduation rate in four years. The assistant principal suggested APG as the ideal group for yoga because they “lack[ed] resilience.”

The separation of APG students from their peers was deliberate, being both physical and curricular. APG students were typically older and had fewer credits than peers at their grade level. The APG students followed a different schedule and rules, coming to school by 9 a.m., instead of 8 as their peers did, and arriving by the basement door instead of the front door. They spent their days in a large basement classroom of BRHS, where Pete, an English teacher, taught them English as a group, and the rest of their time was devoted to working individually through computer programs. The APG had about a 2:1 boy to girl ratio, and the classroom had a decidedly masculine feel. While yoga was a way to earn credits for physical education and other subjects, only about one-third of the APG students, mostly boys, participated. Of the few girls who did participate, none did so regularly. Instead, they elected to engage in other activities during yoga, such as using computers to complete other assignments.

Reflecting the district, most students in APG were Latinx, with a few Black students and fewer white students. The two classroom teachers, one white man, Pete, and one Lebanese woman, Beth, participated in the yoga class, which met on Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m. The yoga teacher, Janine, was white and offered a mix of direct instruction for the body and breath, general and individual encouragement, and challenges to students. She said, “I teach asana [yoga postures] because I like to push people, but I also like to keep it really compassionate.”

Twenty-one students, thirteen boys and eight girls, participated at least once in the yearlong yoga class, with the core group of eight students, all boys of color, averaging 15 classes each over 31 sessions. None of the regular participants identified as queer.


The following data were collected:

Field notes and post-session memos from weekly sessions (just notes, no recordings);

Weekly informal discussions with Janine and Pete;

Individual student interviews in September and April (audio-recorded; 20 minutes each);

Separate, formal interviews with Janine and Pete in September and April (audio-recorded; 60 minutes each).

The data included both passive observation through field notes and memos, and more interaction with informal conversations and structured interviews with the participants. The observations were not audio- or video-recorded. I kept a field journal and wrote thick descriptions of every yoga class. Instead of focusing on a specific participant for a certain amount of time, I chose to observe openly and let situations dictate my attention, paying particular mind to the students who attended most often. I kept track of the yoga poses, what Janine said, what the students said, and how they engaged with or detached during the class. After each class, I went to a local coffee shop and wrote a research memo that was not based on my field notes but rather the situations, language, and people that stood out, particularly noting patterns and outliers. I emailed Janine and Pete my weekly observation notes, and they provided feedback on occasion. These thick descriptions constituted what Carspecken called the “primary record” (1996, p. 47).

The interviews served as interactive ways to collect and refine data from the observations. I used Carspecken’s interview protocol (1996) to develop interview questions that started with general questions about personal background, school experiences, athletic experiences, and then moved into more specific questions about the yoga class itself (see Appendix A). For example, when it became clear that the girls were not participating as much as the boys, I asked the boys what they thought about that. Member checks were conducted on the interviews, and peer debriefers reviewed and provided feedback on my field notes and memos, along with resulting data analysis, on multiple occasions.

The following table provides a list of the student interviews. Not all regular yoga participants consented to be interviewed, and others participated in yoga only in the fall, so I did not conduct the second interview with them.




Participation in yoga classes (31 total)






September and April



Puerto Rican


September and April



Azorean Portuguese


September and April



Puerto Rican


September and April



Latinx (Unknown)









Critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 2010; Rogers, 2004) was used to note major themes that arose in the field notes, memos, and transcribed interviews. By critically examining how the participants took up and resisted dominant discourses, I was able to chronicle how power relations permeated their social practices. I first developed low-level codes based on these themes, and later refined the codes to get to underlying meanings. For example, early on, I observed that some students would opt out of certain poses. At first, I labeled this as resistance to yoga in general, but after further observations and interviews, I discovered that each student had different reasons for not engaging in the class. For Eddie, it was a longstanding issue with his knee, which he re-injured in January. He occasionally would come in and modify the poses using the yoga blocks. Others were into weightlifting and that truncated their flexibility, which they found frustrating. This new knowledge meant that my codes required ongoing modification as I learned more and had to unpack my assumptions.

In the interviews, I developed initial codes based on how the participants worked within and against the spoken and unspoken rules of schooling and yoga practices, used their knowledge and lived experiences to describe their social worlds, and constructed meaning about their actions and those of others. I found that the participants had a reasonably sophisticated critical perspective on schooling and power, even as they never mentioned race as a factor in how they were positioned in deficit ways. They also demonstrated what I first coded as self-knowledge, and then refined as more nuanced codes, including interpersonal/relational, analysis of others, and self-awareness. Samples of refined codes are in Appendix B.

Researcher Positionality

As a white critical literacy educator and newly minted yoga teacher (200 hour RYT, or Registered Yoga Teacher) I had been pondering the connections and gaps between the social practices of literacy and yoga. My college and the Blackstone River School District had recently begun a partnership that was designed to benefit both parties through sharing resources and developing sustainable programs in the schools and community. MindfulKids is a local nonprofit dedicated to bringing mindfulness and yoga to schools, particularly those in under-resourced communities. Since I had connections to both, I helped broker the relationship between MindfulKids and BRHS, including writing a small grant for yoga mats and blocks. I became the liaison between MindfulKids and BRHS, and decided to do a pilot study to determine in what ways yoga served the students and how they perceived yoga. During that pilot, it became clear that the class context of APG, including the teachers’ participation in yoga, was crucial to student buy-in. I also built relationships with Janine and Pete, and got to know many of the students. The pilot study, which consisted of weekly observations, interviews with Janine and Pete, and a group interview with some of the students, showed me that it was impossible to decontextualize the yoga class from the students’ experiences in school. This led to new research questions and to further explorations in the literature, as noted in the literature review.


This research is limited by its focus on discourses and the small and unique sample size. I was disappointed that no girls wanted to participate in the research, and the findings section offers some possible reasons why that was the case. This qualitative study is not meant to be generalizable but nonetheless should be useful for anyone wanting to bring yoga into schools like Blackstone River High. Many of the students were familiar with me through the pilot study and seemed to accept me as part of their yoga experience. I tried to remain curious and open with them, and they seemed to have few filters in talking with me, as was part of the APG ethos as noted in the Findings below. Because I was part of the yoga class and they saw me arrive every week with Janine, they may have wanted to tell me positive things about yoga, but in general, I feel as if their language and actions were authentic during observations and interviews.  


This study analyzes how the participants’ discourses intersected and conflicted with school and yoga discourses in sometimes surprising ways. The data are separated into three main sections: First, I analyze the competing discourses among the participants’ social worlds, including family, school, work, and their social groups. Then, I address the ways the youth described how and why they found school wanting. Finally, I show how the discourses of yoga were in tension with school discourses and their own discourses of sports, gender, and sexuality. These findings demonstrate that the youth maintained their sense of autonomy through the use of resistant capital (Yosso, 2005) to counteract how they were positioned in school. In some cases, the youth took up certain dominant discourses, such as hegemonic masculinity, and rejected others, such as the social taboo of swearing. These findings have implications for teaching yoga in schools and, more broadly, for how we position youth of color.


The youth in this study had competing responsibilities among family, work, school, and their social lives. Each of these figured worlds (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998) had specific discourses that the youth negotiated. Language is a key aspect of discourse, and the participants talked about how their language of choice included a lot of swearing, which was problematic at home and school. They appreciated being allowed to swear in APG, as they saw swearing as an important form of expression. Lenny said, “[In APG] you are allowed to give your thought of how you want to give it.” Daniel added, “Like we have free speech. So we say what we want and not get chastised for it.” Not being censored was parallel to how they were treated differently in APG than in the regular school. Ben said, “[In the regular classes] they treat you like a little kid, but in here you’re treated like an adult.” Being allowed to use their chosen speech was tantamount to being able to use their voices, an important marker of respect for the participants.

In reviewing the data from observations and interviews, the participants’ discourses, including swearing, revealed a keen awareness of systemic issues along with knowledge of other people’s motives, what makes for good or bad relationships, and self-perception, including what they named as their faults and efforts to mature. While they found much to resist in dominant narratives, they also took up heteronormative discourses common in the hegemonic masculine worlds of sports and perspectives on women’s bodies.


When discussing structural issues around class and race, the participants reacted through overt or covert resistance, humor, anger, or acceptance. For example, many of the students qualified for free breakfast and were aware that what they were being offered was low-grade. Joe called the juice boxes “welfare orange juice” because “it’s not real,” meaning that the juice was not made from real oranges. Joe understood that as someone who was receiving a government benefit, he was not seen as valuable enough to receive real juice.

In another example, a Black student, Mac, teased George, another Black student and one of the newest members of APG, about being from East Providence. He told George that he couldn’t really be Black because he was raised in Beverly Hills, or in this case, East Providence. When Daniel, the teacher, and I suggested that EP was not quite Beverly Hills, Mac said there was a good side to it. George said he wasn’t raised on that side. Here, Mac is saying that Black kids are not from places like EP or Beverly Hills, and thus is questioning George’s Blackness. 

The youth also showed their familiarity with police procedures. In one yoga pose, Janine had students in a version of locust pose, lying on their bellies with their hands interlocked behind them. They started referring to this posture as the “perp walk” because it mimicked being arrested with hands cuffed behind the back. After doing this pose in combination with cobra, where Janine had students slither as if they were snakes, one student said, “Miss, if I get arrested I am going to slither.”

These examples show the participants’ knowledge of where they fit into the larger system. By identifying the low quality of the free breakfast, Joe offered his understanding of how he and his peers are valued. Mac’s talk about another town as “Beverly Hills” demonstrated his knowledge of how his community, Blackstone River, was one of the poorest towns in the state. And positioning oneself as possibly being arrested shows familiarity with, and almost expectations of, the likelihood of being arrested. The youth accepted these positions as the way things were, as unfair as they may be.


The students’ use of swearing was ubiquitous and had caused many of them problems in regular school settings. In observations and interviews, the youth rarely used this language as epithets or threats to others; instead, it was part of their everyday vocabulary. Daniel said,

People think I swear a lot but I don’t know. That’s just how I talk. My mom knows that I do it too, but I don’t do it in front of her cause that’s my mom. I gotta respect her. But for people on the street I swear…

While Daniel justified his language by noting “that’s just how I talk,” he also understands that his mother finds it unacceptable. He was aware of how different social worlds have different discourses. He monitored his language at home, but did not in school, saying, “I couldn’t survive in normal classes because of my language.” Daniel recognized the differences in social worlds, and even though swearing was not acceptable in school, he did it anyway, unlike at home.

Lenny’s take was a little different. He chose his language deliberately in order to make a point. He said, “you have to be affirmative in your point of view . . . If you [are] asking me for what I think I’m just gonna give it to you how I thought it…’cause if I change it, then it wasn’t my thought.” For Lenny, it was important to express himself using the words that first came to mind. To do otherwise would be to change the message, and then it would not be a full expression of his opinion. The importance of using authentic language was perhaps best expressed by Eddie, who said:

I know personally me and my friends when we see something or like we feel a type of way, we say it…why hold it in when we can be real and just let a person know right there and then? And some people aren’t really comfortable with that. They can’t adapt to a certain level of realness and I guess that just makes them uncomfortable.

These youth believed being able to speak how they wanted was key to authentic expression. It was more important to get their message across rather than make others around them comfortable. While sometimes their language was directly oppositional, it was also an opportunity to be genuine. This valuing of “a certain level of realness” and being themselves often superseded the need to change their language in order to play the game of school. They did not want to be fake, even if that’s what school demanded of them.

Even as they insisted on expressing themselves using their chosen words, they also knew when they were violating school and even home discourses, as Daniel alluded to above. Lenny talked about how he met all kinds of people taking the public transit system and tried to avoid swearing around these new acquaintances. He said, “So, you know, it’s like knowing the right time and place.” As the youth discuss below, making the effort to speak in accepted school parlance was not a high priority since they did not see school as valuing them, nor did they find it valuable. This idea of school as not being worthwhile was central to their discourses. As Eddie noted, being in school wasn’t a place where they could be “real,” so it was not worth the effort to attend.

Awareness of structural ideologies was central in the participants’ talk. They named issues of class, such as Joe’s remarks about welfare orange juice, and race, as in Mac’s discussion of what being Black really meant. In general, they saw school as an oppressive place that did not accept them, and thus they refused to conform to school norms through overt opposition or simply not showing up. APG provided more freedom of expression, which may have contributed to their acceptance of and participation in the yoga class.


The best classroom teachers develop ways to make the classroom feel like a family that has its own distinct rules, ways of speaking, and power dynamics . . . students with behavior management issues begin to self-manage . . . when there is space for voice within the classroom family (Emdin, 2016, p. 60).

The participants in this study needed schoolwork to be worthwhile and allow for movement, independence, and voice. The APG program allowed for students to bring in their discourses, which the students saw as validating, something they did not experience in the traditional curriculum, where they felt devalued. The mutual respect cultivated by the teachers created a sense of community and acceptance of others. Eddie said, “One thing I learned [in APG] is that you shouldn’t really judge people because you don’t really understand or know what they go through, and you can never really understand. . . unless you live with them.” Lenny agreed, saying,

Yeah everyone’s so different…not one same person had the same point of view, you know what I mean? I never learned something new from somebody that said yes to me…We bump heads and that’s like growth. Um we get mad at each other. We swear at each other…Everybody in here is so passionate about their points of view that it’s okay, it happens. We deal with it. After [that] it’s like, “Yo, you going to lunch? Let’s go to lunch.”

Both Eddie and Lenny note another way that APG’s discourses of acceptance, listening, and compassion were different from what they felt at BRHS where oppositional talk was met with fear and then being kicked out of class. This is also about control. The APG teachers trusted the students to have arguments and also be able to resolve them. In regular school settings, this kind of discourse was seen as threatening, and so the participants were often kicked out of class or served in-school suspension.  


Yosso (2005) theorized that low-income people of color have “community cultural wealth” that often goes “unacknowledged and unrecognized” by those in power (p. 70). Instead of seeing student opposition to schooling practices as an indication of their lack of self-control or grit, Yosso named these actions as resistant capital. The youth in this study engaged in oppositional discourses to contest how they were framed by those in power, often by refusing to participate in or protesting schooling discourses that positioned them in deficit ways. Their actions not only demonstrated their knowledge (and often rejection) of dominant discourses but also exposed serious problems in educational policies and structures (Nolan, 2011).


Absenteeism, or what they called “bunking,” was one of the participants’ most consistent forms of resistance to schooling. In some cases, they had to make hard choices about what was most important: caring for family members, working, or attending school. Pete, their teacher, said, “My students’ . . . attendance throughout their school academic history has been inconsistent at best.” He later added, “Some [students] don’t make it. Some, you know, life gets in the way,” demonstrating his understanding of how social and economic policies impacted students’ willingness and ability to attend school consistently and on time. Joe, age 18, lived with his partially deaf and blind grandmother so he could care for her. Eddie worked many hours at a fast food restaurant. Daniel and Lenny would pick up work with family members, several of whom worked in various trades, such as construction. These responsibilities were one cause for chronic absenteeism, a contributing factor to their presence in APG. As Pete put it, “life gets in the way,” meaning that youth from working class/working poor backgrounds often are engaged in the caretaking of family members or work to support themselves or their families. These duties competed with the need to attend school, and sometimes seemed more important.

The youth also spoke of skipping school because the work was not meaningful. Joe said, “I would come for like tests and everything but as far as schoolwork, just didn’t bother taking it. Classes that I didn’t feel like I needed to be there for I just left.” Daniel, another APG student, noted that he didn’t feel as if the tasks being asked of him in the regular classroom were worthwhile, saying, “I just never did the work…none of the stuff meant anything to me.” Chytara said, “I always struggle in regular classes…’cause I can’t sit still. I got ADHD.” In these cases, the youth decided what was important and what was not, and attended school accordingly. In Chytara’s case, it was not so much the lack of meaning but that her needs were not appropriately addressed. Regardless of the reason, when students missed school, they were suspended, which meant they missed even more school, such that they could not pass their classes and finally ended up in APG, a last-chance program.

Even as the youth often found school unfulfilling, it was clear they had high expectations for learning and relationships with teachers. Lenny said, “I don’t think like school nurtures your intelligence at all…I thought school was to expand your mind. It [does] not ’cause it’s just work.” Instead of taking up deficit language about himself, he shows how school did not meet his expectations. He clearly wanted to learn—to “expand [my] mind” and found it wanting. Even though he was happier in APG, he still got high every day before school, saying, “Hell no, I’m not going to school sober.” School was not meaningful enough to command his attention without the benefit of pot. I name the students’ bunking as resistance to show their agency in making adult-like decisions about priorities for their own wellbeing.


When the youth did attend school, they resented being positioned in deficit ways, and some showed this by arguing with teachers. Eddie, who, by his own admission, had a history of speaking out in school, told the following story:

In English class I probably said a lot of rude things I probably shouldn’t have but the teacher liked me so she never really kicked me out…Like one time I asked to go to the library and I had a book in my hand and she looked at me and she’s like, “Why do you need to go to the library? What are you gonna do”? And I looked at her and I was like, “Are you serious? Cause I don’t have a book in my hand you stupid bitch. What the fuck you think I want to go to the library for”? She’s just like, “Eddie don’t talk to me like that.” And I was just like, “Don’t ask me no stupid ass questions.” And like she started crying. I felt bad but it’s just, to me at that time I felt like that was a stupid question to ask ‘cause I obviously had a library book in my hand that said Blackstone River Library.

Similar to the youth in Plank et al.’s study (2001), Eddie was aware that he was crossing lines of civility but spoke out because he felt he was being disrespected. In this incident, he understood two things to be true: first, his teacher implied that he was lying, insinuating that he was not the kind of student who would have a book from the library; and second, that while he should not have spoken to her in that manner, he had to stand up for himself. Eddie saw that, even if his teacher liked him, she was still suspicious, perhaps because she would not see him, a Latinx boy, as the kind of student who would check out a book from the school library. He reacted, using heteromasculine discourse, by calling her “stupid bitch,” demonstrating how resistant capital may not just be about speaking back to authority but can also reinscribe a different kind of authority; i.e., patriarchy. After that initial reaction, he “felt bad,” showing that he also understood not only how her behavior affected him but also how his behavior affected her.

Eddie took ownership of his angry outbursts, calling himself “rude and ignorant,” but at the same time noted that his feelings, if not how he acted on them, were justified. Later in his high school career, he decided to be more strategic. He said:

You know, I just woke up one day and I had a conversation with myself and I basically told myself if I stay on the route I am, I’m really not going to become anything. I’m . . . It’s just not going to work. Life is going to be harder than it has to be and it’s just going to suck. So I decided basically to change my shit and pick up the slack.

Here, Eddie realized the limitations of his use of his oppositional discourses, noting that these actions were going to make “life . . . harder than it has to be.” He understood the dominant discourses and made the choice to adapt to them, demonstrating his agency and savvy (Cushman, 1998).

While school became easier to navigate once he entered the APG program, Eddie still had to deal with difficult situations, particularly at work. Instead of reacting in anger when confronted with a problematic boss, he used what he learned in the yoga class to keep himself calm:

Like she slows everything down. She’s just terrible…and then she’ll try to blame the people around her… When I’m really mad and like ready to explode, I just breathe. And every time I breathe out I just let all the anger out . . . It’s helped me at work from not losing my job.

Earlier, Eddie had used his resistant capital to speak out against a teacher who he felt humiliated him. Here, he saw that the situation with his boss was different—he viewed the issue with an authority figure as incompetence instead of questioning his identity. This distinction, plus the skillful deployment of yogic breathing, demonstrated his understandings of systems, himself, and his agency. Yoga techniques gave him an alternative to using harmful heteromasculine discourses against a woman who had power over him. This is an excellent case for the portability of yoga practices into youths’ lives beyond school, as the hierarchical norms of school echo that of other institutions, including workplaces.


In this section, I describe the complexities of what happens when yoga is offered in a classroom where school discourses and youth discourses are already in tension. APG students were allowed more freedom than their peers in regular classes to adhere to their out-of-school identities, which often included how they talked with friends (i.e., swearing) and their family responsibilities (being late to school because of caregiving or work). The teachers were more tolerant of language and lateness because they did not want small infractions to get in the way of APG students completing their required tasks.

In keeping with this low-key approach, the APG was mostly an interactive space, and the youth, especially early in the year, would continue talking and teasing each other during the yoga class. Their continued banter demonstrated their unfamiliarity with, and perhaps resistance to, yoga discourses, which ask that participants attend to the self and avoid “comparative mind,” a phrase Janine, the yoga teacher, often used. Instead, the youth sometimes made fun of each other in different poses, talked to one another, touched each other, and engaged in other heterosexually masculine practices (Kimmel, 2008; Pascoe, 2012) which were tolerated in the APG but were socially and culturally taboo in typical studio yoga classes.

The boys in this study were habituated to seeing physical exercise as a place for gamesmanship and competition. They also were used to this work taking place in environments primarily populated by boys and men, such as gyms and playground basketball courts. They came to yoga with a sports mentality that did not necessarily mesh well with the discourses of yoga, which are based in compassion instead of competition.


The youth, along with Pete, who was also the school basketball coach, brought a competition-oriented sports mindset to yoga. Yoga blocks were used as missiles, basketballs, and footballs, and on occasion the young men would try to top one another in holding a pose. Most of the youth participated in some kind of sport, sometimes school teams, such as the basketball or track team, and others played basketball or soccer recreationally. Eddie was involved in mixed martial arts (MMA) and Lenny was a breakdancer with a background in boxing and judo. In addition, several lifted weights regularly, and Janine would lament how those with tightly bound muscles had limited flexibility and core strength, keys to a robust yoga practice.

The emphasis on competitiveness is a key component to schooling discourses, in that students compete for grades, accolades, attention, and athletic status in sports. Schools value certain qualities, coded as masculine, including “competitiveness, overconfidence, point-scoring, sporting, and being career and status conscious” (Lesko, 2001, p. 151). As the school basketball coach, Pete engaged in and often encouraged sports-minded competition, even though he had experience with yoga and understood that “strength and speed are prized in most sports. Not in yoga.” He said, “I think that’s the male perspective in our school, in our culture, is that ‘I’m an athlete.’” Joe, one of the participants, agreed, calling himself a “student-athlete.”

In keeping with their sports backgrounds, Pete and the young men would occasionally compete with one another in yoga. When Janine offered a challenging pose one morning, the following exchange took place:

Pete: [I’m going to try it and] I’m a fat old man.

Joe: If he’s doing it, so am I.

Me: That’s not the yogi way.

Joe: It’s the winning way…Injuries heal, pride doesn’t.

Here, Pete encouraged his students with an “If I can do it, so can you” mindset, and Joe followed his lead. I tried to interrupt this trajectory of comparing and competing by making the claim that this is not what yoga is about, and Joe immediately dismissed that with sports discourse, indicating that taking on a challenge offered by another, or competition, is important to maintaining one’s pride.

This sports mindset, which can be coded as heterosexual masculine (Lesko, 2001; Pascoe, 2012), was exemplified by some of the youth in that they pushed themselves even if they were in pain. Lenny explained it as “You know, it’s all in the mind. If you push yourself and push yourself it all goes away.” He compared doing yoga to dancing, saying, “I’m not going to give up just ’cause it’s hard.” He also described yoga as “brutal, terrible, and painful.” These are not words that any hatha yoga instructor would use to describe a class, but they exemplify how Lenny treated the class: as a way to push himself past his perceived limits.

While none of the youth hurt themselves during yoga under Janine’s watchful eye, pain was a recurring theme throughout the data, as several participants were working with injuries from other activities, usually sports. Sometimes, these claims to injury seemed to indicate resistance to what Janine was asking them to do, perhaps to save face and maintain their masculine capital. On a few occasions, though, they took the modifications she offered, such as using blocks. In the spring, Eddie was on crutches with a knee injury that inhibited his full participation in yoga. However, he showed up and did as much as his body allowed:

(5−20 Observation): [The students] stretch from front to back in lower lunge [adding a] hamstring stretch… and then twist…Eddie…uses the block [to modify] so[he is not directly on his bad knee].

In this example, Eddie chose not to give up on the pose but to modify it. His willingness to risk the loss of masculine capital in front of his classmates was in contrast to other participants who would complain or step off the mat when encountering challenge. It also demonstrated his body awareness, which was evident in the observation data throughout the yearlong course.

Several of the youth talked about how yoga had a positive effect on their bodies and supported their participation in other sports. Joe said, “I definitely think it’s a great way to like just release all the tension in my muscles. It’s, it’s nothing like physical therapy. I actually look forward to going to yoga.” Eddie concurred, saying, “I…come because I like the stretches. It feels good on my joints and stuff.” Mac compared the stretching he learned in basketball to the stretching he was doing in yoga this way:

The stretching I’m used to is like stretching something till it hurts, then like by the time I get into like a basketball game it’s like, it’s not sore, but . . . it’s like kinda worn out…The stretching [in yoga] feels better than the stretching I’ve done [in basketball].

Mac also noted that the yoga postures and breathing practices were helpful for his stamina during basketball games.

As self-described athletes, the youth brought discourses of sport, including competition, camaraderie, and a no-pain, no-gain mindset, into the yoga class. They also took some of the fruits of their yoga practices, such as breathing, stretching, and stamina, into their other athletic endeavors. In some cases, yoga offered them an alternative way to view their bodies: instead of machines to work until they broke down, they developed stronger body awareness that went beyond pain tolerance.


The participants’ talk included a strong dose of heterosexual masculinity in two ways: sexual comments regarding the girls in their class and the yoga teacher, and sports discourses based in competition and risk-taking (Connell, 1996; Lesko, 2001). As Connell suggested, the boys took up the gender privilege sanctioned by society and the school to reinforce gender dichotomies (1996). However, the participants also occasionally declared injury or pain as reasons not to participate and positioned the yoga teacher as tougher than they were, complicating hegemonic discourses of masculinity. Issues surrounding the body, particularly in regard to gender and sexuality, are important considerations for how, when, and why youth participate or choose not to participate in yoga.

Three major overlapping themes appeared in relation to gender and sexuality during the yoga class: how the boys positioned the girls; how the boys positioned the yoga teacher; and how the yoga teacher positioned herself. The boys in the APG classroom occasionally sexualized the yoga practice, even as they knew this alienated the girls. When asked why more girls did not participate in yoga, Eddie said:

I’d say it’s just because of the fact that they’re just more guys here than there are females. And I’m not gonna lie, we’re kinda assholes, you know, like, so maybe some of the females don’t feel comfortable…around us . . . You know, like we still have some immaturity, like we probably like say things and do things that don’t make them feel comfortable.

In this statement, Eddie acknowledges that the antics of the boys in the APG class appear to make the girls feel uncomfortable, and associates that with his own and his friends’ immaturity. He owned that behavior but at the same time did not show any indication of changing it. Similarly, Daniel said:

All right. The main reason [girls don’t participate] is because it’s mainly due to this class. So therefore we are all inappropriate and like not like sexual harassment. It’s not like that. But they know for a fact that we would look at their butts. So they’d rather not have that. I know that goes through their minds.

Both Eddie and Daniel are conscious of how their sexualization of the girls affects the girls’ wanting to practice yoga. As Pascoe noted in her ethnographic study of heterosexual masculinity in high school, they “recognize masculinity as an identity expressed through sexual discourses and practices that indicate dominance and control” (2012, p. 13). Eddie and Daniel acknowledged that they were “assholes” and that “we are all inappropriate” but also dismissed their power as “immaturity” and implied that their behavior did not constitute “sexual harassment.”

Since APG was a place with “masculine energy,” as Janine put it, these behaviors seemed unavoidable to them because of the expected performances of masculinity (Kimmel, 1994). The girls also saw it this way. Chytara said: “It [the boys’ behavior] does kinda bother me ‘cause…it’s like I don’t want to do [yoga]. But at the same time because I know it’s a grade that I have to do it, but it’s awkward . . . boys will be boys and girls will be girls.” Here, Chytara acknowledged the paradox of wanting to participate in yoga but in doing so, risking the male gaze. Like Eddie and Daniel, she identifies this as inevitable instead of socially constructed (Pascoe, 2012).

These interviews demonstrate the participants’ awareness of how the actions of the boys affected the girls. Interestingly, in the observation data, I recorded no instances of boys intimidating girls physically or with language. Further, while Pete and Janine both indicated surprise and disappointment that more girls did not participate, they did not attribute it to sexual intimidation. This happened even though Pete was fully aware of how the boys talked about girls, saying this after they attended a public yoga class that Janine taught:

it was clear the young men at APG have an appreciation for the female body, especially for different ones than they see every day here, and while they were a bit boisterous in discussing what they were staring at, they were not graphic, gross, or inappropriate.

Like Eddie, Daniel, and Chytara, he normalized their behavior instead of asking them to question it. I attended this same class and was excited that there were several men there so that the youth could see that yoga was something men do. But that was not the topic of their conversation. This was a lost teachable moment in which the opportunity was there to talk about how the participants, including Pete himself, were positioning women.

Our teacher is Catwoman.”

Intersectionality and poststructuralist feminist theories address how bodies in schooled spaces are raced, gendered, and classed (hooks, 1994). Young women who become teachers have two choices: to be the hot teacher or the frumpy teacher (Joeson, 2004). The same is true, maybe even more so, for yoga teachers in schools. Yoga clothing can vary depending on the population and type of practice, but form-fitting pants and tops are de rigueur for many kinds of yoga practiced in the United States. Janine wore typical yoga clothing during the yoga classes and could be classified as falling into the “hot teacher” category from some of the youth perspectives, which I explore below.

Janine understood and often embraced certain discourses of heteronormative masculinity. She rode her bike everywhere, even in winter, and refused to use blocks in her own yoga practice even as she urged her students to do so. Similar to Pete, she would sometimes voice a heterosexually masculine perspective with the students, once addressing their complaints about a difficult sequence by saying, “This is the first of four yoga classes I’m teaching today and I’m also going to ride 20 miles on my bike.” In this way, she expanded and Complicated her positioning as both the sexy and compassionate (coded as more feminine) teacher and the tough and competitive (coded as more masculine) yoga teacher.

The boys responded in multiple and sometimes conflicting ways to Janine’s contradictory subject positions: some seemed to see her mainly in a sexual way, others saw her as a hard teacher, and others as a competitor. Prior to Valentine’s Day, she talked about a couple’s yoga class she was teaching, and Eddie spoke up: “Miss, I’ll be your date!” When prom came around, the boys had a discussion over who would get to invite her. She and Pete dismissed these comments as playful and inappropriate, not threatening or harmful. However, by seeing her as a potential date, this showed that the youth did not grant her the status of teacher or adult.

In one April yoga session, Janine was leading the students through a challenging sequence when Mac asked me, “Ever watch Catwoman? That’s our yoga teacher.” Catwoman is a femme fatale in Batman’s life, both a love interest and enemy. In this case, Mac’s reference to popular culture showed two distinct roles for women: as objects of desire or fear. In this case, I believe it also showed his admiration for Janine, in that he recognized and respected her physical abilities.

This simultaneous respect and resentment were echoed by Joe a couple of weeks later when he called Janine a “yoga Nazi.” I saw this as a reference to the Seinfeld episode about the “soup Nazi” as opposed to Hitler’s regime. In the Seinfeld case, the term is used to denote the extreme control that the character exacted when someone ordered a bowl of soup. Joe seemed to be reacting to what he saw as Janine’s unreasonable expectations in the yoga class, and by naming her in that way, he demonstrated his respect for her prowess and his doubt that he could do what she asked. Lenny echoed that sentiment at the end of that same class when he said to Janine, “One of these days I’m going to bring gloves and fight you. I have extra gloves.” In this case, Lenny positioned her as a rival, not the sexy teacher and not an authority figure. For some of the boys, then, the progression of seeing Janine as an object of sexual desire evolved into positioning her as drill sergeant and then finally as worthy competitor. This demonstrated a respect among equals, thus complicating narratives of heteronormative masculinity. Janine saw this as well, remarking in a year-end interview, “I don’t think they see me as the sexy yoga teacher anymore. They see me as a woman instead.”

While the boys’ perspectives of Janine shifted over time, there were limits. As a guest in the school, she depended upon the classroom teachers to maintain order. When Pete and Beth were absent or inconsistent, Janine used a more authoritative approach, which the boys usually ignored. Even though Beth, a teacher in APG, often participated in the yoga class, she rarely said anything if the youth got rowdy. As Janine put it, it was like she was a student taking a regular yoga class instead of a classroom teacher in charge of the participants. Pete appeared to be the sole voice of authority, but he was not always consistent. Janine said, “The days when Pete wasn’t there, I really felt it. I think it was really to the point that I was almost feeling cynical, like I don’t even know if I can do this program if he’s not there.” When he was not present, Janine had to work harder to maintain an orderly yoga class, which increased her self-doubt as a yoga teacher in schools. Even as the boys respected her physical strength and toughness, it was not enough for her to feel comfortable teaching without the support of an authority figure, in this case, a man in the room.

These data show the tensions that can occur when yoga is brought into a space where heteronormative masculine discourses around sports and sexuality are present and accepted as normal, which is often the case in public schools (Pascoe, 2012). Even as some of the youth embraced a more yogic view of their bodies, gender, sexuality, and power relations were already complicated in that particular classroom, and the behaviors in and around the yoga class echoed that complexity.


This research attends to the systemic nature of hegemonic school policies through analyzing the conflicting discourses among youth, schooling, and yoga. By illuminating these complexities, this study addresses the problems and possibilities of yoga in school. For yoga to be effective in schools, it is important to see how the discourses of youth, school, and yoga intersect and are in tension with one another. This study indicates that the participants’ discourses were tied to their identities, and when they felt disrespected in school, they chose not to participate, either passively by not attending, or more assertively through direct opposition. In either case, that meant that they were not in school, and thus not learning, as Lenny noted. Further, they brought those same discourses into the yoga class. While they spoke of the benefits they received from yoga, including opportunities to relax, to stretch, to meet challenges, and to breathe, they sometimes had difficulty adjusting to unfamiliar yoga discourses.


When educators assert that youth, particularly those of color and from working class backgrounds, need grit and social emotional learning, they are often inferring that the youth do not have those qualities, and that these qualities are necessary for a useful and successful life. The systemic oppression of schools, including racial microaggressions and heteronormative masculinity, and the discourses of youth are ignored, often leading to reifying deficit perspectives of youth.

The students in this study demonstrated forms of what could be called grit, or resilience; however, these qualities did not look the same as touted by the literature or what their assistant principal probably had in mind. The youth did not validate a hegemonic system through compliance, developing calm attitudes before tests, or bringing down the school’s suspension rate. Instead, their grit took the form of opposition and often got them into trouble. These participants also took seriously their commitments and responsibilities to family and work, yet were penalized for non-attendance. The youth met challenges from dominant discourses with challenges of their own. Daniel, Joe, and Lenny refused to attend classes they did not find worthwhile, and Eddie spoke out loudly and forcefully when he felt disrespected. This shows how current narratives of grit and resilience are not only inadequate but perpetuate colonial discourses that do not take into consideration the very real grit of poor students of color.


The participants all spoke highly of their yoga experience. Pete heard comments such as, “It helps me to concentrate, it helps me to focus, it helps me to know at least a few ways to deal with stress.” In addition to seeing yoga as reducing stress, the youth learned about their bodies. Joe said, “[I have] a better understanding of where my body sits as a whole. To see what it’s comfortable as and what I can push it to.” This offered a sense of pride, as Lenny noted: “After [class] it’s just amazing what I’ve accomplished…And I think that’s what makes people feel good about it.”

This sense of physical accomplishment led to feeling better equipped to meet emotional challenges as well. Daniel and Eddie spoke about their struggles with anger and how yoga helped them. Eddie said, “I say like it’s helped me on my own personal quest of maturity. Like I do apply some of the techniques learned in yoga to real life situations. And I use them to hold my temper and not flip out.” Joe also talked about how doing yoga opened him up to new challenges:

I feel like it opened up my mind like I started off this year when yoga first came up I was like “aw, I don’t like yoga.” But then you know I tried it and I got into it and I liked it and I found myself trying even more things…I was like “I did yoga, let me try this.”

Yoga, then, provided opportunities for the participants to relax and be challenged. Through mindful breathing and movement that calmed the nervous system, the youth became more open to seeing themselves and others in new ways and increased their self-awareness and determination.  

Yoga offered a new discourse and way for the youth to see themselves, but it needed to happen on terms they were familiar with and that they would accept. By bringing the heteronormative masculine discourses of sports and gender/sexuality to the yoga class, the boys made the foreignness of yoga’s discourses into something familiar, and thus something those who practiced regularly found beneficial. Perhaps, then, yoga served as a way to mitigate the heteronormative masculinity embedded in sports culture. However, those same discourses excluded some of their classmates, notably the girls. This is an example of how bringing yoga into schools provides a both/and experience—it can have both positive and negative ramifications based on how it is contextualized.

Even though Janine intentionally put the students in a circle so that no one could see anyone else’s butt (despite Daniel’s earlier statement), it was not enough for the girls to participate. Further, while Janine used heteronormative masculine discourses to her advantage by acknowledging the boys’ competitive natures, she too did not feel comfortable without a man’s presence in the room. Even though the boys spoke of her as a worthy competitor, they did not always honor her authority as a teacher, and Eddie’s stories about how he talked to women authority figures echo that. Since women make up the vast majority of yoga teachers, this has implications for the sustainability of those programs.

Just as theories of intersectionality ask us to see the world as both/and instead of either/or, yoga provides space for complexity. Freeman wrote, “We find that the practice of yoga frequently presents paradoxes (philosophically, emotionally, mentally, and physically) that place us in double binds that seem ironic and impossible to navigate” (2010, p. 83). Yoga counters current schooling practices that seek to explain and control youth behaviors through reliance on control, numerical data, and efficiency. Since the ontologies of school and yoga are in conflict with one another, it is difficult for yoga researchers relying on positivist methods to say for sure that yoga has a positive effect on youth (Greenberg & Harris, 2011; Khalsa et al., 2011). This does not mean that yoga should not be in schools, however. It does mean that yoga service providers, teachers, advocates, and researchers may need to rethink their intentions, pedagogies, and research methods.  

Although yoga may serve as a counternarrative to the discourses of schooling, it is only with intention and practice that it does not reify narratives of power and patriarchy. This is particularly true when the students themselves replicate these narratives, such as the participants’ use of heteronormative masculine discourses. Even in this case, though, it was clear that yoga complicated those discourses, which could have been explored more skillfully by the adults, including the classroom teachers, yoga teacher, and me, the yoga researcher.

Based on this research, there are many possibilities for making yoga an inclusive and welcoming practice in schools. First, there needs to be a sense of community where the youth feel comfortable and valued, and thus all bodies and experiences are respected. Classroom teachers can demonstrate leadership, vulnerability, and support for the program by participating. The youth in this study spoke about the importance of breath and quieting the mind, while also being encouraged to take risks in order to meet challenges. Many yoga programs already offer these kinds of experiences, so I would add the following: noting how yoga provides alternative perspectives on the body, including identifying how sports and yoga offer different ways to meet challenges; discussing how yoga talk is nested in compassion and connection; and naming heteronormative discourses, along with more nurturing ways to see themselves and others in terms of gender and sexuality. Further, yoga teachers in schools might consider bringing in familiar and healthy social practices around sports or culture as ways to establish connection and build community.

Yoga in schools has the potential to provide opportunities for youth and educators to critically reframe themselves in agentive ways. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel wrote, “It is important to the viability of any path that students see themselves reflected in it. This does not have to be only in terms of race, sexuality, or gender, but also in terms of the true nature of students’ lives” (2015, p. 70). We validate youth discourses by acknowledging their lived experiences. This does not mean we do not ask them to question those discourses, even as we show willingness to question our own. When this work is done together, youth and educators can learn to see themselves and one another with understanding and compassion.  


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Beginning of Semester


What are your short-term and long-term priorities for the APG kids in yoga this year?


What do you think will be different because yoga is starting in the fall instead of the spring semester?


Do you think you will have more or less buy-in this year? Do the kids need this class for credit (i.e., PE or art?) Last year, you spoke about needing to “call in some favors” to get kids to come. Do you think you will need to do less or more of that?


 What have you noticed about individual personalities so far? Are the personas they are showing on the mat the same as you see in English class? Do you have a prediction on who will get the most out of the class? Who will be the most resistant? Who needs it the most (physically or emotionally)?


Some students seem to be finding it hard to attend to themselves with their friends all around. While yoga is about attending to the self, how can—or should—there be space made for kids to interact with one another in the yoga class?


Is there anything you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask about?


Beginning of Semester


Coming into class for the first time two weeks ago, what were your short-term and long-term priorities for the APG kids this year?


What have you noticed about individual bodies and personalities so far? Have you decided to focus on particular dharma talks and/or asana to address those issues?


I noticed that you seem more directive this year. Is this purposeful, and to what end?


Some students seem to be finding it hard to attend to themselves with their friends all around. While yoga is about attending to the self, how can—or should—there be space made for kids to interact with one another in the yoga class?


Is there anything you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask about?


Beginning of Semester


What brings you to the APG program? So far, how has it been different than your “regular” schooling experience? What do you hope to get out of it?


Besides school, what are your other obligations (work, family, etc.) that take up some of your time and energy?


What do you like to do in your free time?


What are your goals for after school? What/who do you have to support you, and what/who might get in your way?


What kind of physical activity/sports do you regularly engage in, or did in the past? What did you enjoy most about it?


Have you done yoga or meditation or other mindfulness activities before? What did you think it was about? What do you think it’s about now?


What have you liked best so far? What do you hope to eventually gain from the yoga class? Is there anything that will keep you from that (i.e., injuries, etc.)


Is there anything you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask about?


End of semester questions (April)


How do you feel about the progress you are making toward graduation?


It’s over halfway through the year and you’ve been doing yoga for several months now. What has changed for you?


You are one of the regular participants in the yoga class. Why do you think some of your classmates take part in yoga and others don’t?


Is there anything you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask about?






A) Knowledge of Systems


APG vs. regular school

Like, if I was in the regular school, um, and I did something that I did in here [APG], most likely they’d probably throw me in a room and, you know, they would call my parents and they would just start a big fuss for nothing. But here you’re like treated like an adult where if you do something you have to take responsibility for it.

Outside of School

Discourses for being in public

I take the bus so of course I have a lot of encounters with random people and so I don’t swear or anything. I talk to them . . . like I try my best. Um, you know. So, you know, it’s like knowing the right place and time…

B) Resistance to School

Skipping School

School not worth the hassle

I would come for like tests and everything but as far as schoolwork just didn’t bother taking it…Classes that I didn’t feel like I needed to be there for I just left.

Direct Opposition

School doesn’t allow for authentic talk

You have to be affirmative in your point of view…some people aren’t really comfortable with that. They can’t adapt to a certain level of realness.

C) Yoga Discourses

Different from traditional team sports


If he’s doing it, so am I.


Contrast with sports

The stretching I’m used to is like stretching something til it hurts, then like by the time I get into like a basketball game it’s like, it’s not sore, but . . . it’s like kinda worn out…The stretching [in yoga] feels better than the stretching I’ve done [in basketball].

Body awareness


My perspective about yoga in a like, I don’t know, my shoulders feel a lot better. Like I can actually move… without feeling like crap. My back is awesome now. My knee before [yoga] it [was] like if you punched it or slammed anything against it or hit it with a bat I would not feel it.


Positioning girls in the class

We are all inappropriate and like not like sexual harassment. It’s not like that. But they [the girls in class] know for a fact that we would look at their butts. So they’d rather not have that. Like I know that for a fact.


Positioning the yoga teacher

Ever watch Catwoman? That’s our yoga teacher.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 9, 2020, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23359, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 7:31:11 AM

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About the Author
  • Janet Johnson
    Rhode Island College
    E-mail Author
    JANET D. JOHNSON, Ph.D., is a Professor of English Education and Site Director for the Rhode Island Writing Project at Rhode Island College. Her research interests include critical literacies, contemplative studies in education, and teacher research. She is co-editor of the SUNY Press volume Stories of School Yoga: A Narrative Inquiry Project.
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