“I Can’t Do That:” Reflections on Teaching Yoga to Middle School Students by Molly Hilgenberg


Every yoga pose I showed the seventh graders, I was interrupted with “I can’t do that. I could never do that. Is this right? I can’t do it.” I continued to smile at them and tried to breathe deeply, but started to feel my own limits of experience setting in. I’ve been teaching adults who PAY for yoga, who want to be there, who trust me for encouragement and guidance for several years as a full-time job. Sure I could teach Poughkeepsie Middle School students as a volunteer for WPS…everyone deserves to have access to yoga!

To say this experience was humbling is an understatement. Half the students sat on their mats and wouldn’t take their shoes off. Most of them kept calling it Yogurt to see if they’d get a reaction from me. The other half competed with each other or made fun of each other. I felt my own painful memories from being a 7th grader bubble up and how terribly shy and awkward I used to feel if peers pointed out anything to expose that I was weird or different. I haven’t been in a middle school since I went on to high school 15 years ago, and I was nervous that the students could tell I was nervous. I remembered my yoga teacher trainer’s advice to be myself, but to make every class about my students.

The Vassar mentors calmly worked with their students next to them on their own mats as they tried the poses too, encouraging the kids to try it, or to stop talking, or to just sit down and take a break. I tried to keep moving but soon realized I could have the kids try 100 poses and would still run out of ways to keep the skeptics interested. Soon a theme developed. I kept hearing all of them repeat “I can’t do that”, and I realized what little sponges these preteens were! They were regurgitating what peers, parents and other adults had been saying their entire little lives about anything that seemed too hard or too different. I knew this all too well because I spent several years in my twenties telling myself I couldn’t become a musician – because I had to keep a regular job to live, or I simply didn’t have what it takes to go beyond the familiar.

I’m finally breaking through my own personal patter of “I can’t.” This winter I moved with my husband from Minneapolis to a rural farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. We have a good friend who had a connection to a house that needed caretakers, which is how we could afford to move out here after quitting our jobs, leaving our friends and saving up enough money to live on until we settled in and found new livelihoods. We are extremely fortunate to even have this opportunity to take a risk, to create our own change. Music is coming alive again for me, and even if it doesn’t work out, I now understand that I at least need to try to find the courage before deciding I can’t.

When I started doing yoga in my early twenties, I could barely keep up with the class physically, not to mention I couldn’t afford to take regular classes. I was working through various physical health problems, anxiety, depression and a dark cloud of negativity had settled over me. Thankfully, I found a cleaning exchange program at a local studio and was able to work there for free yoga classes. Soon I became a regular practitioner, breaking through patterns and becoming my own agent of healing and change for my life. I felt more confident and inspired by the healthy role models, the humble teachers who taught me yoga poses as metaphors for daily life. “Practice and all is coming,” they would repeat the famous quote from Sri Pattabhi K. Jois.

As I went through Teacher Training I started to understand how many risks people take every day just to try something new like yoga. We never left middle school. We show up in the wrong clothes, afraid to take our shoes off at the door, and we are definitely not taking our socks off. We borrow smelly rental mats, sit awkwardly staring at ourselves in the mirror wondering when this will be over. The teacher seems like they can do everything perfectly and we feel even more limited within our bodies. We can’t do that, we judge.

I’m not even sure if most of the kids heard me when I kept stating “in yoga, we do not judge others, and we don’t judge ourselves.” I was trying to be compassionate towards the girl in the corner who was making fun of everyone else as she leaned against the wall, refusing to try anything stating she didn’t want to be embarrassed. I’m sure it will take more than one class to convince her that this is a lifelong practice of trying to overcome fear. The fear of falling, the fear of being weird or different, the fear of failure. As I showed them crow pose, one student fell on her face and I rushed to exclaim how good falling was because it taught us to get back up and try again. She went into the pose slower this time and didn’t fall. A few of the boys asked me to put my leg behind my head. I politely declined. Everyone tried tree pose. We attempted to finish class in Savasana, but most of them lost interest and continued talking and wanted a snack. Eventually they all wandered off as I rolled up the mats and went home.

I’m grateful for the privilege of sharing yoga with those wonderful young skeptics last week and hope to return. It’s worth it even if one student will become inspired to stop hearing the “I can’t / you can’t” around them and will decide to start practicing something they are interested in, especially when parents or peers say it’s a waste of time or the reasons why they can’t. Yoga poses are metaphors, and are difficult / wonderful reminders that if we let go of self-judgment and judgment from others, maybe we can just continue to try, and all is coming.

I am also overwhelmingly in awe of anyone who can teach middle school students. You are amazing.


Molly Hilgenberg

Molly Rose Hilgenberg has over 1,800 hours of experience working with beginner to advanced yoga students (E-RYT Yoga Alliance) and continues to learn every day from the yogis who just show up to breathe.