Street Yoga: Hope and Healing to Homeless YouthPosted on Mar 23rd 2010 2:00PM by Deborah Dunham
When you think about homeless youth, teaching them yoga isn't always the first thing that comes to mind in a list of their needs. But, ask anyone who practices yoga and they will tell you it makes perfect sense.
Arising from a discovery within himself after beginning yoga, Portland, Ore. resident Mark Lilly said he found the practice overwhelming and deeply touching -- so much so that he quickly realized the need to share it. With a background in social services and working with kids, he founded Street Yoga -- a nonprofit organization that provides free yoga, wellness and meditation classes to homeless youth and those at risk of becoming homeless. Even without a physical residence, Lilly believed he could provide a sense of true home in the minds and bodies of these young people.
Working through local shelters, foster care agencies and other "off the streets" programs, Lilly and his team of volunteer yoga instructors now work with youth who have encountered early life trauma including physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and difficult family situations. "Yoga is compact, portable, real and immediate," Lilly said. "It's a way to help heal unresolved trauma, and it's deeply powerful."
Powerful indeed. With a deeply-rooted background dating back thousands of years, yoga has long been known as much for its physical benefits as for its mental and spiritual rewards. Coming into a pose you didn't think you could do, holding one longer than you thought you could and opening up your body in a new way that brings peace and power to your mind and soul can make a world of difference to anyone -- especially those who have had that power taken away.
Recognizing that many of these kids have different needs, Lilly said they practice "situational yoga."
"Someone who has been abused has different needs than a young woman in a shelter with a baby, a 16-year-old on the streets or an impoverished kid in foster care," he said. "By presenting yoga in a way that makes sense, we are teaching these kids how to be stronger, more assertive or more relaxed."
Not that it's easy, though. At first, many of the kids come in with a "why bother?" attitude, wondering what yoga can really teach them. But it's not long before a young mother who is homeless and jobless realizes the stress-relief of yoga or a teenage girl who has been sexually abused realizes the strength and assertiveness she can achieve through this exercise. "We are helping them reduce the likelihood of being in the same situation again," said Lilly.
With 23 locations throughout Portland, chapters in New York City and Seattle, and affiliate programs in many other cities, Street Yoga is making its way through the streets of this country. Whether it's teaching someone how to reduce anger or just teaching them how to stay warm at night, Lilly believes yoga is an act of service. "The greatest thing is by simply doing it, you are already serving yourself and others," he said. "Just keep showing up and good things will happen."
To get involved with Street Yoga or learn how to bring this practice to those in difficult situations, visit the Street Yoga web site. Not already a yogi? Make this the year to learn.
Do you know of others who are using their fitness to bring awareness, funding or service to those in need? If so, leave a comment below and tell us about them. We may just include them in the next "Fit Philanthropy" column!