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Inner-City Students Get 'Om Schooling' in Yoga

Meditation: Instructors hope free classes will help needy youngsters find inner peace.


It's a sunny morning in South-Central Los Angeles, and former movie producer Tara Lynda Guber is breathing deeply. But as she begins her yoga class with a circle of attentive inner-city children, she first tries to grapple with a horror that all the higher consciousness in the world cannot banish.

Seated in the lotus position, her muscular frame clothed in black sweats, Guber tells the children gently that yes, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a terrible thing, "but that doesn't mean the whole world is bad, but that there are people who don't know right from wrong."

"And one of the things that we can do with that, one of the places we can go to, is to go inside of ourselves and find the place where we can truly find what is right and wrong for us," Guber says.

The children--who live in neighborhoods where the rat-a-tat-tat of stray violence punctuates homework, kickball and the more ordinary items on the growing up agenda--close their eyes, their faces as guileless and inscrutable as the private world of childhood.

"We can be grateful we are here in such a safe place," Guber says in a soothing tone. "We can be happy to be here together to stretch, let our bodies open and our minds be set free, so that perhaps when we leave our yoga class we can move into another mind-set. More at peace with ourselves and others."

This is what Yoga Journal calls "Om Schooling."

Here at the Accelerated School, a high-performing campus that serves kindergarten through eighth grade, Guber is giving brainy underprivileged children a head start in high-end hatha.

Guber, the wife of Hollywood film producer Peter Guber, is bringing yoga to the people--and trying to give the children something she and her friends find a great comfort in this age of anxiety.

"This is their birthright too," Guber said. "Consciousness is for everybody."

Guber is not America's only yoga apostle. Pro bono yogis across the country are teaching yoga to prisoners, pregnant teenagers, people in halfway houses and at Boys and Girls clubs. Guber even invited one of South-Central's yoga-baptized gang members to detail his newfound inner peace at a symposium.

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The yoga missionaries may be on to something: Researchers are studying whether meditation reduces hypertension in African Americans--and administrators at the Accelerated School believe it could be helping the children attain their celebrated test scores.

Guber, a member of the school's Board of Trustees, believes good yoga habits start early.

"If only the kids in New York could have had that tool to sit down and go inside to say, 'You know what, we are going to remain strong in this.' To say, 'We are going to be the light,' " she said.

Should you doubt the depth of Guber's sincerity, follow her up a winding mountain road to her Beverly Hills estate and the spiritual base of her mission: the Yoga House. Inside this Italianate retreat, a wall of leaded-glass windows frames a sweeping city view. A beautifully painted Sanskrit salutation, "Namaste," greets you. "We bow to the divine in one other," Guber translates.

On a recent night, dozens of people crowded in to greet legendary 1960s guru Ram Dass, who is 70. They shed their shoes at the door, filling a rack with everything from Birkenstocks to Manolo Blahniks. Sitting in a circle at his feet, they poured out the emotions that have raged in their hearts since Sept. 11.

"I felt that everyone who had been killed was a family member," one woman said. "I've lived long enough to feel we're so close, we're so connected."

"Then," she said, "I get to the place with the terrorists and my heart hits a wall. I cannot forgive. I cannot include them in my family. I'm feeling the limits of my compassion."

This is a tough one, even for the best guru. Ram Dass, the former Richard Alpert, sat silently in his wheelchair.

Then he waded in with a treatise on seeing people as a universal dance of souls reincarnating themselves into new bodies with new psyches.

"When you bring those terrorists into your mind," he said, "you're turning yourself off, which you complain about. We judge, often, to separate ourselves. They hijacked the planes because they didn't care about Americans, and you not caring about the terrorists is feeding the same thing they're feeding.

"Because each human heart is part of what's going to change things around here."

Some people closed their eyes, as Ram Dass compared the terrorist attack with his own brush with mortality. Like his stroke, the tragedy was "fierce grace."

"The culture got a stroke," he said. "It awakened everyone to 'What are we doing here? Who are we? Isn't anybody in charge?'

"To me," he said, "that's awakening."

It is from this mecca that the flame-haired Guber makes her way down the hill to introduce gifted South-Central children to a physical release that, for her and millions of other Americans, has replaced jogging.

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