US yoga activists bring benefits to needy
Aug 10, 2009 - 11:38:29 AM

Time was when yoga was considered a lifestyle choice in the US, something upper class people did in the luxury of spare time. That image is changing fast, thanks to activists who want to spread the therapeutic benefits of yoga among those who badly need them.

Take, for example, the scene at George Washington University on a recent afternoon. The desks in a classroom were pushed aside and 15 school students were sitting cross-legged on the floor with their eyes closed, breathing deeply.

'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,' a Washington Post report noted.

At the end, they lay unmoving on their backs in shavasana, or corpse pose, drawing audibly deeper breaths.

'Remember this feeling in your daily life,' said the teacher, 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 programme to prepare 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, Pennsylvania, Sprout Yoga holdsfree classes to people recovering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and eating disorders, whereas Yoga Hope in Boston serves battered women and recovering addicts, the Post reported.

'We're just trying to give people access to the true yoga,' said Adrienne Boxer, executive director of Street Yoga, an Oregon-based organisation 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 - and then 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 was quoted as saying. 'It just hit in a big way for a lot of people at the same time.'

Jasmine Chehrazi, 29, who founded the non-profit studio Yoga District here three years ago, is one of the key people behind the 'yoga activist' outreach effort in the area.

She invited Lilly to Yoga District's bare-bones studio in Bloomingdale. Lilly spent three days last week at the studio teaching 30 yoga instructors, social workers and medical students how to teach yoga to 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 naive, and people trying to come to terms with pain or trauma may need more than yoga poses. But the Post noted: 'Even some sceptics 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,' he said for benefits of yoga.

And the newcomers are not looking for scientific evidence either. Sasha Lord, a 27-year-old Girl Scouts field director, said: 'I suffer from depression, and I think yoga really helps me. It's an urban survival skill.'

Monea Hendricks, 27, an African American doctoral candidate at Howard University who started practising yoga to relieve stress during college, said: 'People think yoga is for upper class white people. It doesn't have to be an expensive, upscale, Northwest D.C. thing - it can actually meet people exactly where they are.'

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