By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
The desks had been pushed aside in a classroom at George Washington University on a recent afternoon, and 15 District 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 -- social workers and nurses and senior staff at nonprofits and clinics and hospitals -- 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 the District, 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 have nothing to do with poses. 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."
As part of her work with Girl Scouts, Lord has been visiting the Prince William County Juvenile Detention Center for two years, working with incarcerated girls to build self-esteem and communication skills. By the middle of this month, she said, she will start a weekly yoga class there.
"They need to learn coping mechanisms -- if they can do a sun salutation instead of having an anxiety attack, that's amazing," she said.
Despite their varied backgrounds, trainees expressed a common faith in yoga's ability to change lives for the better.
"People think yoga is for upper-class white people," said Monea Hendricks, 27, an African American doctoral candidate at Howard University who started practicing yoga to relieve stress during college. She said she wanted to bring yoga to at-risk teens, especially minorities. "It doesn't have to be an expensive, upscale, Northwest D.C. thing -- it can actually meet people exactly where they are."
Regan Gage, 31, a third-year medical student, said she wants to use it to prevent teen pregnancy. Sara Turner, 27, plans to teach HIV-positive patients in the hopes that yoga can deter the onset of AIDS. And Erin Heramb, 29, a social worker and therapist who has worked with emotionally disturbed and delinquent teens, said she would use yoga as a new tool.
"If you're working with someone that has anger issues or someone with low self-esteem or someone who might cut themselves," Heramb said, "I think it helps, in addition to traditional therapy."
Back on the George Washington University campus, Upward Bound student Monet Tucker rose from savasana and grinned. "I used to think yoga was lame," said the 15-year-old, who lives in Southeast. "I thought it was for old people."
But now, after four weeks of classes, she has changed her mind.
"It feels so good," she said. "It's for everybody."