Bringing yoga to the masses
By Emma Brown
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON ó The desks had been pushed aside in a classroom at George Washington University on a recent afternoon, and 15 D.C. high school students sat cross-legged on the floor with their eyes closed, breathing. For an hour, under the guidance of volunteer yoga teacher Jessi Long, they stretched and lunged, extending their hands toward the ceiling and folding into toe-touching forward bends.
At the end, they lay unmoving on their backs in savasana, or corpse pose, drawing audibly deeper breaths as the minutes passed.
“Remember this feeling in your daily life,” said Long, rousing them with her voice. “You can always come back to this feeling of relaxation and release.”
The class, for students in Upward Bound, a program that prepares low-income youths for college, is part of a growing movement to take yoga beyond its reputation as boutique exercise for the well-to-do and use it as therapy for groups such as at-risk and homeless youths, HIV/AIDS patients and torture survivors.
In Media, Pa., Sprout Yoga teaches free classes to people recovering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and eating disorders. Yoga Hope in Boston serves battered women and recovering addicts.
“We’re just trying to give people access to the true yoga,” said Adrienne Boxer, executive director of Street Yoga, a Portland, Ore., organization that teaches homeless teens and victims of sexual abuse, among others. “It’s a lot more than an asana, or a pose that you’re striking. It’s the way that you breathe and the way you relate to others and communicate.”
Mark Lilly, who founded Street Yoga in 2002, said the interest in making yoga freely accessible grew steadily until two years ago, when it exploded. “Enough service providers ó social workers and nurses and senior staff at nonprofits and clinics and hospitals ó had done yoga in their own lives,” he said. “It just hit in a big way for a lot of people at the same time.”
In Washington, the effort is just beginning. In addition to Long’s class for teens, there are a handful of other free sessions, including occasional classes at D.C. libraries. Another volunteer teaches political-asylum seekers through a Baltimore-based organization called Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma.
Jasmine Chehrazi, 29, who founded the nonprofit studio Yoga District three years ago in Washington, is one of the main people behind the “yoga activist” outreach effort in the area. She launched a Web site for volunteer teachers to reach nonprofit groups (and vice versa), and she invited Lilly to Yoga District’s bare-bones Bloomingdale studio, a former pager store.
Lilly spent three days last week at the studio teaching 30 yoga instructors, social workers and medical students how to translate the language and movements of yoga into something approachable by a pregnant teen, an abused child or a recovering addict.
“Empowering people to meet their own needs is one of the biggest things we can do,” Lilly said. “Yoga is just the context.”
That attitude can sound Pollyanna-ish, and people who are dealing with pain or neglect have needs that go beyond exercise. But even some skeptics of alternative therapies agree that yoga is a tool people can use to feel better.
“Yoga is exercise, and it’s pretty well established that exercise improves the mood and can reduce stress,” said Steven Novella, a Yale University neurologist who founded the New England Skeptics Society and edits Science-Based Medicine, a blog that has been critical of what it calls “pseudoscience” done in support of alternative therapies such as acupuncture and herbal remedies. “These are pretty basic science-based claims.”
Some participants in last week’s training session said they don’t need science to prove what they know from personal experience.
“I suffer from depression, and I think yoga really helps me,” said Sasha Lord, a 27-year-old Girl Scouts field director. “It’s an urban survival skill.”