Is there a place for yoga in homeless shelters?

Notes from different corners of the world.
July 31 2009 3:14 PM

Oms for the Poor

Can yoga help the homeless?

A yogi at the 2007 Yoga Aid Challenge.
A yogi

The agenda for this year's conference of the National Alliance To End Homelessness, held this week in Washington, was crowded with workshops and panels typical of such events: "Exploring Rapid Re-Housing Pilot Models," "Partnering With Your PHA," and so on. And then there was the two-hour session on Wednesday promising "thirteen ways to integrate yoga into your own local programs."

Yoga for the homeless? Shouldn't we try to, say, get people a place to sleep—and then we can talk about inner balance?

That's what most of those in attendance seemed to be thinking. The conference was abuzz with the phrase housing first, a policy shift toward getting people their own apartments rather than putting them in shelters. Yoga didn't quite factor into that equation. The conference program didn't even have much to offer in the way of "wellness," an idea that many say has picked up steam in the advocacy community.

Oms and asanas, however, are popping up in some shelters. Sometimes, they come from high-end yoga professionals who feel like they should give back by going into homeless shelters and teaching a class or two. There is a burgeoning service ethic in the yoga world, often directed overseas and packaged in soft-lit glamour photos. This doesn't always work. Katie Tichacek, of Pathways to Housing in New York City, told me about a class taught by one of the organization's board members, a "90-pound, perky, cute" professional violinist, which had been canceled for lack of interest. They're trying again, though, this time with a "consumer"—advocacy-speak for "homeless person"—who became a certified teacher through their employment program.

The more promising approach is one rooted in the lives of the people being served. The birthplace of this idea, unsurprisingly, is progressive Portland, Ore. Mark Lilly founded Street Yoga there in 2002, focusing on homeless youth and their families. Similar programs soon materialized, mostly on the West Coast, and Street Yoga now holds training sessions for teachers working with at-risk kids.

When working with youth particularly, the focus isn't on esoteric yoga theory or even the longer-term benefits that urban yoga mat-toters think about, like a toned body or consistently lower stress. Rather, it's techniques for staying warm while you're spending the night on the street, easing the pain in your body from a hard lifestyle, calming yourself when you might otherwise get into a fight. "It's a survival skill," says Adrienne Boxer, who now runs Street Yoga, which operates on volunteer hours and some grant money.

Of course, public dollars tend to follow studies that prove effectiveness. And though yoga's effect as a stress reliever has gone mainstream and there is some evidence that it may help with drug addiction, there isn't statistical evidence yet on whether it helps the homeless. At Street Yoga, and the newly created Yoga Service Council, Lilly has convened a research group to figure out the metrics by which you'd actually gauge how it works. The bigger problem, though, is that the transient homeless don't make for a great study population. "Doing anything with any sort of long-term perspective is literally impossible," Lilly says.

Anecdotal evidence doesn't count for much among those who dole out grant money. But if Wednesday's session was any indication, it means a lot for those who do the legwork.

When Jamie Taylor first approached the alliance two years ago about including yoga sessions in its annual conference in Washington, organizers laughed. "It was like, yoga? And homelessness? What does yoga have to do with homelessness?" said Taylor, a nonprofit housing consultant and longtime yoga devotee.

This year, though, they came to her. And on Wednesday, in the vast basement of the Renaissance Hotel, a handful out of the 1,000 attendees showed up at a morning session meant to help people clear their minds. I showed up to watch but was informed—with the group's affirmation—that I would need to participate. Sans notepad.

So did Terry Snead, a 61-year-old formerly homeless man who showed up out of curiosity. Tall and thin, he said his favorite exercise was walking and had a clarifying question for the instructor. "I've seen on TV a guy who fits into a box. Is that yoga, too?"

Taylor, tan and muscular, led the group through a series of increasingly difficult positions, from warrior pose to sun salutations. Joints cracked and bodies hit the floor behind me as the stretches grew more intense and the balancing more precarious. At one point, a large woman who had never done yoga before got up to leave, defeated. Taylor sweetly enjoined her to stay, and she did.

Participants brimmed with ideas for bringing yoga back to the people they served. Shirley McKee, a case manager for the homeless near Detroit, said her clients—often overweight and defeated, living in cramped and cluttered quarters, with children running around underfoot—would benefit just from the breathing exercises, even if coaxing them onto a yoga mat might prove an impossible task. Jessica Hales, with the Alabama Department of Mental Health, mused on how it might be incorporated into a pilot project on "alternative wellness."

But Taylor's focus is to bring yoga to homeless-service providers. At the end of Wednesday's session, after we lay prone in a darkened room for what felt like a half hour, the mood was jubilant. "If you create the inner balance within yourself, you can bring it out in your work," Taylor says.

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