#YogaForEveryone: teaching homeless youth

Originally posted on National Center for Excellence in Homelessness Services


Yoga Classroom Set up at a Homeless Youth Drop-in Center

Recently, I showed up totally spent at the homeless youth drop-in center where I teach a weekly yoga class — physically and mentally drained. This particular drop-in center is one of the largest in the country and provides Los Angeles’ youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability with services such as food, clothing, showers, case management, health and mental health care, amongst many others. When I got to the day room it was seriously crowded, but no one seemed to be interested in doing yoga. Some days this agency sees over 100 youth in one day. I hung out for a bit, trying to recruit youth into my class. Every time I show up, I never know what I’m going to get, how many or who will be interested.

Finally, Josh popped out of the computer lab. Computer lab happens at the same time as my class and happens to be my biggest competitor. Josh wanted to join in. He is one of my regulars. He consistently comes to class. Josh is a sweet and kind African American youth. He is probably 20 years old. When he’s not in my class, I see him reading comic books and rocking out to metal YouTube music videos with his headphones on. Josh also has a serious mental illness and sleeps on the streets of Hollywood. He loves yoga.

For class today, I opened with a simple breathing exercise, also known as a pranayama. As a yoga teacher, I’ve been trying to incorporate more pranayama into my teaching. Pranayama, in its simplest translation, means “controlled breathing.” In Sanskrit, prana translates to the life-force (aka breath). Yama often translates to restriction. Therefore, pranayama is the restriction of the life-force, or controlled breathing. There is an an endless number of pranayama exercises that are as simple as counting out your inhales and exhales. The health benefits of pranayama are well-established. Pranayama directly affects the parasympathetic nervous system. Something these youth can really use. Something we can all use.

I opened the class with Surya Bhedana Pranayama. Inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left is supposed to activate the body and its bodily functions. It energizes and lights the fire in the body. Then, after about 40 minutes of poses, I closed class with Chandra Bheda Pranayama, which is simply the reverse — inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right — which calms the body and slows down the heart rate. Surya — the sun — awakens, and chandra — the moon — calms.

After class ended, I checked in with Josh. I explained to him that the breathing exercise at the beginning of class is supposed to energize and the breathing exercise at the end is supposed to calm. I asked him if he felt that the pranayama had these effects. He looked at me and said, “Do you believe that it does?” I was kind of taken aback at the opportunity to reflect. I said, “Yeah, I think it does.” Josh responded, “Everything works if you believe in it.” I could not respond right then, but just smiled.

All the exhaustion that I showed up with had faded away.

Josh is right. Everything does work if you believe in it. I am a social work researcher. I spend countless hours studying the lives and health of homeless youth. Before pursuing my doctorate, I worked in the field as a clinician, outreach worker, and advocate. Today, I am also a yoga teacher. Trust me, I’ve spent many hours in mental conflict wondering: “What am I doing teaching yoga, when I should be reading, writing, and collecting data?! This is just a hobby and, frankly, a waste of time!” However, I eventually decided to stop viewing my roles as a social worker and as a yoga teacher as separate. Today, I teach yoga to homeless adults, families, and youth in Los Angeles at three different service agencies. I’ve collected carloads of donations of athletic clothes, water bottles, and backpacks from Los Angeles-based yogis to support classes and workshops. These efforts keep growing and the lines keep blurring.

I believe that yoga heals trauma. This is a fact. I believe that yoga is for everyone. I believe, through the right education, awareness, and outreach, that yoga can change the lives of homeless youth and other overlooked and underserved populations. Yoga has surely changed my life. Through my work with Josh and others like him, I continue to learn these lessons every day.

I look forward to the next lesson.

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