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Yoga for the homeless of Boston

What’s it like to teach “Yoga for the Homeless of Boston”? Here’s my experience from the event last weekend.

Yoga is a powerful practice that can allow us to step away from the stress in our minds by being fully in our bodies. In recent years, yoga has been explored as a way to “transcend trauma”. Preliminary analysis has shown gentle, trauma-informed yoga to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Yoga’s healing effects are thought to occur because the body can hold emotions for years after the occurrence of a traumatic events, including natural disasters, sexual assault, physical abuse, political violence, or serious injury. These emotions can manifest themselves when individuals experience certain types of sensory and hormonal stimulation (i.e. triggers), causing us to “relive” a traumatic experience, and they may cause us to jump into a fight or flight response. When these sensations arise in a safe place, such as our yoga mats, our bodies begin to realize that there isn’t a need for our sympathetic nervous systems to kick into overdrive in response to our triggers. With time and practice, we can begin to process these emotions and allow them to pass.

It’s difficult to think of any population in Boston more in need of trauma reduction than the homeless of our city. According to Carl Elliott, a Physician and Professor of Philosophy and Journalism at the University of Minnesota, the vast majority of the homeless experience some sort of mental health issue. For some, domestic violence or disorders such as schizophrenia may have forced them out of the workforce and into the streets. For others, homelessness may push them into drug addiction for the simple need of coping with the extreme stress of living on the streets. Regardless of whether homelessness or mental health conditions may have come first in this chicken and egg cycle, trauma is nearly inevitable.

Their loss of possession, security, and community can be enough to trigger trauma for those living in the streets. Yet even for those lucky enough to find refuge in a shelter, overcrowding and physical or sexual assault that occurs in these spaces may be traumatic events. Moreover, some may find themselves trapped in a “mild torture economy” in which they are used as lab rats for much of America’s drug trials. These trials exploit the impoverished, mentally ill who can endure “getting half-retarded in exchange for payment” without the ability to provide valid informed consent, according to Elliott.

Due to the hundredfold stressors that homeless individuals may face, organizations in Boston have begun reaching out to provide them with mental health relief in various forms The Philippine Medical Association is one such group that has worked toward investigating the unmet health needs of the elderly homeless population in Boston. Through their exploration, the organization has found that the community has communicated outstanding desires for affordable facilities and resources to treat their chronic pain. Thus, during the Saturday homemade lunch session that the organization provides to the homeless at Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Boston, the group has also started offering low-impact, restorative yoga lessons led by local teachers in the community. And that’s where I stepped into the story.

A few weeks ago, I was in the midst of making final touches to a slide deck to train local researchers in the Philippines to lead a qualitative formative assessment of Children International’s Youth Health Corps program – an intervention that aimed to improve life skills, prevent substance abuse, and promote safe sex among adolescents. It always seems that when I’m working on a global health consulting project, I see that specific country pop up everywhere around me. For example, when I was consulting for ethnography and qualitative nutrition projects based in DRC, suddenly single-origin DRC chocolate bars and coffee beans screamed my name from every single specialty store I passed. This Philippines project was no exception from that pattern. When an email from Boston-based yoga teacher Laura Ahrens popped into my inbox, I was almost expecting the Philippines to be in the title. I replied automatically, saying, “Yes, I’d love to volunteer to teach a class for your organization!”

I arrived to Emmanuel Church on a Saturday at noon, prepped and ready for my gentle, restorative sequence. When I walked into the wooden entry space, the wellness program director pointed me toward a large room of lunch-goers and volunteers with friendly faces. She explained to me that in their past few attempts at bringing yoga to the homeless, they hadn’t had much luck drawing in a crowd. This time, she feared, may be the same because the sunny Saturday left them with a low turnout for lunch. She explained that because of their stubborn aches, pains, and immobilities, many of their population thought that they simply couldn’t do yoga. In the last session, getting some of them to lie on the mat was far too much to ask. “Can we do yoga in chairs today?” she asked with hope.

“Of course!” I exclaimed, shredding my pre-planned routine to pieces in my head and quickly revisioning a new sequence that was accessible to all bodies in the room. With that, the wellness director rallied the troops, announcing the hour to the room of lunch-eaters.

“Would you like to join us for yoga?” the director asked the man to her left, who, as she explained later, had once taught meditation to corporate giants, but is a bit shy to share.

“Oh no! I just ate,” said the meditating man, waving his hands at us.

One after another, the response was to the same effect. Some pointed to their nagging knees, others blamed their bulging bellies, and still others simply said no. This polite refusal was met with the protest of the wellness director, who pleaded, “But we won’t stand on our heads! Nothing crazy!” My mind flashed to the dancers, gymnasts, contortionists, and quasi-nudists who apparently did #yogaeverydamnday on my Instagram feed. Of course, these men must feel excluded from the movement, given the baggage of its modern image.

Despite the best efforts of the director, none of the homeless of Boston joined me for “Yoga with the Homeless of Boston”. However, four Philippine Medical Association volunteers did. This group of middle-aged Filipino women were self-described “beginners” to yoga who also politely declined practicing on the mats. The chairs, they said, were comfortable enough. I led us through a seated meditation followed by the head to toe chair yoga releases that I had sequenced on the fly. They oohed and ahhed at the wrist stretches and the lavender essential oil neck self-massage, stating that their muscles were always so tight from their day jobs.

After our session, they exclaimed that I must try the hot homemade lunch that they had prepared! I served myself a plate of rice and vegetables, and I took a seat next to one of the men who had declined to participate in our yoga class. “You’re the yoga teacher, huh?” he questioned me.

“Yes, I am!” I replied.

“So where ya from?” He asked.

“I’m from Illinois. What about you?”

“Illinois! Lots of corn there. So that’s why you look like corn!” he snickered. “I’m from Massachusetts. My dad was in the Navy here when I grew up. Your parents still together?”

“Yes, they are. My dad’s a professor,” I responded.

“You’re lucky... I was married for ten years before my wife divorced me,” he said without blinking.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Do you have any kids?”

He looked down to his plate and mumbled something about a daughter. “But they always wanna cut you off when they get to a certain age, ya know?” He said, somberly. Then, changing the subject, “Say, what do ya think of Starbucks?”

I replied that I’m not usually a fan. He boomed animatedly, “It’s gotten worse than McDonalds in there! And the coffee’s not even that great!” Then, lowering his voice to let me in on his secret, “I tell ya what’s good, go to the 7/11 and you can get a large coffee for just a dollar.” I laughed, admitting that I hadn’t tried the coffee at 7/11.

After finishing my last morsel of homecooked rice, we both got up to leave. Outside, I strapped my helmet around my head and unlocked my new bike, heading off to Tatte for my $5 latte. He hopped on his unsecured rusted bike to zoom off towards the 7/11. “Say, keep up that yoga, kid!” he said with a wave and a grin as he wheeled his way through a line of pedestrians. I promised him that I would.

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