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For Homeless, Serenity Arrives On a Yoga Mat

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

Rainbow just took his clothes off. Again.

A large man in a red sweat shirt keeled over, right in front of his scrambled eggs and grits -- thunk, onto the linoleum floor. So the paramedics are here.

Mr. C keeps asking me what the seventh deadly sin is. Aaron is showing off the blue anklet he made to match his toenail polish, the woodworking table is crafting seahorses, and Travis's razor is buzzing loudly -- it's haircut day.

Amid the pandemonium, four homeless men on purple and pink rubber yoga mats have their eyes closed, faces heavenward, in four nearly perfect cobra poses.

"Feel how your breath moves through your body," says their yoga instructor, a remarkably serene woman named Julie Eisenberg, who led the class in a church basement after free breakfast was served at Miriam's Kitchen.

Yes, homeless yoga sounds nuts.

Eisenberg is in on the joke: "Trust me, when I first started doing this, people just laughed."

I wondered about it, too. But I had visited Miriam's Kitchen while writing about the city's homeless and was surprised to find an arts program at the soup kitchen to rival any top-flight Florida senior center. So when Catherine Crum, the unflappable deputy director of the place, invited me back to see the yoga program, I couldn't resist checking it out.

The permutations and sub-genres of yoga are easy to make fun of, for sure. There's hot yoga, cold yoga, street yoga, hip-hop yoga, Broadway yoga, rock yoga, prenatal yoga, postpartum yoga, naked yoga and dog yoga (yes, yoga with your dog, the very beast that was doing "downward dog" long before yoga mats were invented). I totally admit to subjecting my children to baby yoga. Which was cute. And a bit silly.

But these are people who are hungry and tired. They might be mentally ill, and they are certainly downtrodden.

Theirs can be a feral world where survival is the only order of the day. They need housing, medicine, counseling and jobs. Not hobbies.

So, no, it doesn't seem that a few kundalini poses are going to fix things, and it would be easy for me to snark at the concept.

But then I watched a class.

It's one hour a week at 8 a.m., taught by a volunteer. And it tells these people that just because they don't have an address, it doesn't mean they don't have humanity.

When they do yoga, after being hunched over in a defensive crouch for years, aching from carrying their worldly possessions in duffels slung over their shoulders, hurting from years of sleeping on pavement, it can be transformative.

"I'm suffering from back pain. Aches, you know, it's the life," said Junior Amarzon, 32, who has been living at the St. Elizabeths homeless shelter in Southeast Washington for nine months and is a dedicated yoga student. "Yoga is great for me, for my body."

When Aaron Swieringa, 29, feels the flash of his anger heat up inside him -- when the job center put him on hold again or someone is moving in on his sleeping spot on the street or looking to steal his stuff -- he breathes in. "And I breathe out: 'Whoooosh.' And I calm down. I remember the stuff that Julie said, and I use that yoga on the street."

There's one man who watched for weeks, sitting quietly in one of the metal chairs. Eventually, he left his pile of stuff and took off his layers of coats and sat on a mat.

Eisenberg told him to "open those ribs up, get space between those ribs," and he breathed in and out. His shoulders relaxed. "After a few classes, he was doing really well. He told me he hadn't been able to touch his toes since 1992," Crum said.

She is friends with Eisenberg, who was laid off this year from her job as a researcher for a labor union. As Eisenberg began to rely on her yoga certificate, teaching at gyms and studios, Crum pounced. It's how she operates; Crum is a master at getting people to volunteer at the kitchen.

Since February, Eisenberg has been patiently instructing people who probably never thought they'd be doing the lotus pose on the floor in front of their buddies.

Almost all of her students are men. Many are Spanish speakers, so she switches easily back and forth between tongues. "Abrir el corazon," she whispers. "Open your hearts."

She is tiny, mouselike, next to the large men with sagging pants and wacky shirts who are listening to her intently as they teeter-totter in a forest of unstable, one-legged tree poses.

"Relax your body. Focus on a point," she tells them. And the trees stand tall.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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