The development of Yoga as a Peace Practice as the first national initiative of the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance began in response to a growing epidemic of violence in our communities. It was after Trayvon Martin’s tragic death in 2012 that I began Yoga as A Peace Practice on the ground in Rhode Island.
In January of 2013 I reached out to one of the local homeless shelters to inquire about offering a free yoga class as part of their day programs and training. The class would be for homeless women recovering from physical abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction. In short time I received a positive response from the shelter. Logistics were quickly confirmed to hold the classes at a community yoga center not far from the shelter.
Fifteen women show up for the first class. Most of them walked into the into the beautiful yoga space with shoulders hunched up to their ears and frustrated or angry looks on their faces. I directed them to choose a yoga mat and find a place on the floor facing me, but only half of the women complied. The remaining half either took one of the few available chairs or sat with their backs against the wall. I asked why had they come to yoga and many of the women shared that they would not be participating in yoga, for a host of reasons. One common response was simply: “I don’t really feel like it.” I taught a very easy first class that emphasized breathing and letting go to release stress. Some of the women harrumphed while nodding and a few showed a wan smile toward my general direction. Before I knew it the hour was over and all of the women were on their feet and out the door.
I sat for a while after the first class and started to reflect on what I had witnessed and experienced with the women. Several of them had teeth missing and one woman’s arm was bent in horrific fashion. A couple of them were quite pregnant and they both looked like children themselves. There were two women who often frequented the restroom during the session and I had the feeling they were getting high. The women represented several ethnicities — Asian, African-American, Latina and Native American. As I continued to reflect, I felt some sadness, but I was motivated to see whether or not the concept of yoga as a tool for healing and supporting change would match what I had personally experienced many years ago.
I developed several different classes for the first 8 weeks that focused on slow and gentle practices to give the taste of prana. The practices were basic and focused on 15 postures that included a variety of back and forward bends, standing and seated postures, and twists and inversions. I also instructed them on three breath practices: ujjayi, dirgha and nadi shodhana.
The yoga practices varied from week to week, each class ending in savasana and Kripalu’s closing salutation of J’ai Baghwan (I honor the light within you). Slowly, the bodies of the reluctant women peeled from the walls. Some joined the class in the middle of asana practice, while others joined at the end for savasana. It didn’t matter to me, as long the women participated. I taught yoga without compromise or judgment; I taught yoga in its truest form where breath informs movement. Asana teaches one how to sit while sthira-sukha, a critical component of yoga, translates as attentiveness and ease. The beauty is in the fluidity of these practices and how they can be applied to every action we take in life. I also discussed chitta vritti nirodaha, how yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind. I was even able to integrate a small sharing circle and partner yoga into the classes. After 12 weeks we finally chanted Om!
Some of the women attended consistently for as much as six months, while others participated for eight to ten weeks. Attendance was also impacted by transfers to other facilities or women leaving the program altogether to move into private apartments. The word has spread because now I observe newcomers who walk in and show respect to me as the teacher and to the space as sacred. Every now and then I hear a funny exchange between the women as they admonish the newcomers not to open the door once the class has started. Many of the women have felt comfortable enough to share stories with me about how their children have been taken from them and others talk about their relationships. I have never asked them to share personal details about their lives.
I have had the privilege to watch these women change as they get new teeth, bones mend, and babies are born. I humbly offer Yoga as a Peace Practice from my heart. It’s been three years and my Thursday evening classes are still full with homeless women in recovery and struggling to survive. A few weeks ago I received a call to ask if a man from the homeless recovery program could join the class. I thought for a few moments and then answered “yes.” I thought, “sure send him over and I’ll introduce him to Yoga as a Peace Practice!”
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