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Street Yoga in Portland

by Muhammad Siraj about a year ago in yoga

Street Yoga, founded by Mark Lilly, offers yoga and wellness classes to homeless and sheltered youth in Portland, Oregon. Lilly’s staff of dedicated yogis volunteer at community sites including Outside In, The White Shield Center and New Avenues For Youth.

Inspired by Sara-Joy Marsh (Lilly’s sensei and founder of Living Yoga, a non-profit organization that teaches yoga to prisoners, drug addicts and the homeless), Street Yoga teaches youth lacking reliable housing, struggling with poverty, or transitioning through the foster care system. Read more on the best online yoga teacher training on YOGI TIMES website here: Lilly described homeless and at-risk youth as disparaged by society, disregarded with isms and prejudices based on their survival needs.

“Although it’s tough to understand what these kids endure, they’re still kids. Street survival is simply their way of life. Street Yoga offers a safe, honoring, and welcoming space of continuity and commitment absent in days and nights filled with struggle.” Lilly noted that yoga is not a high priority for homeless youth – survival is. “Lacking shelter, assets, income and familial support, these kids are vulnerable. Being is their current condition. Yoga is a doorway for understanding the possibilities that lie within.”

Portland statistics indicate that 90 percent of its homeless youth have escaped violent households. Thirty-six percent of the females have been sexually abused, often by age seven, and 30 percent are sexual minorities, convinced that street life remains a safer haven for the complexities of sexual and gender differences. Some are abandoned or run away, escaping parental poverty, joblessness, alcohol, and drug abuse. Homeless and at-risk youth are preyed upon for sex, drugs and petty theft.

Culprits of all ages lurk as night creatures that beat, steal, stab, pimp and roll {kicked and shoved downhill for bedding} the at-risk population, forcing sleepless nights and encouraging addictions to narcotic stimulants. Frigid temperatures, relentless rain and a lack of foot apparel cause severe foot fungal infections; youth rarely change their shoes and socks more than once a year. Exhaustion, hunger, illness and fear remain chronic.

Lilly described connection and acceptance as key teaching components. “Asanas are tailored to individual needs and given energies,” he explains. “Classes transcend the physical, offering yoga as an ethical practice with a spiritual component, one that creates a positive, safe and loving environment. Although asanas, breath and restorative poses reduce stress, a teacher’s respect and appreciation for who they are becomes the avenue for transformation.”

“Yoga is an activity of opportunity, presence and calm for our youth,” adds Kathy Oliver, Ph.D., Executive Director of Outside In. “For some, it’s the lecture of experience for understanding the limitations posed by alcohol and drug abuse. For others it’s a calming presence, a spiritual awakening that connects a respect for the world.”

Outside In, dedicated to serving homeless youth and low-income adults obtain independent living, provides food, shelter, crises counseling, employment education and a community health clinic. Working one-on-one, case managers address health, housing and education needs, helping youth secure their GEDs and enhance work readiness to obtain and retain employment. The Medical Clinic, a coalition of naturopathic doctors, interns, acupuncturists and Chinese herbalists, offers primary care to those lacking health insurance. Eighty-percent of the tenants never retreat to the streets; over seventy are employed, and twenty-eight are currently attending college.

Educational flyers tout yoga’s ability to increase immunity, ease back pain, enhance circulation, and build inner warmth – essential elements for tolerating street life.

“Classes are meaningful and practical,” adds teacher and Chiropractor Larry Novick. “Postures ease the stress of sleeping on park benches, beneath bridges or standing for long periods of time. Poses are modified for injuries instigated by child abuse or street life. Although we don’t pander to their differences, we do make allowances.” Novick recalled a young girl’s difficulty in performing pigeon pose, resulting from a beating by her father to her lower back.

Lilly works closely with Street Yoga teachers to insure an understanding of the challenges the teenagers sustain. Trainings, meetings and open discussions via e-mail and website newsletters facilitate the how-to’s of interacting with scenarios unlike most. “These kids don’t have what most take for granted, a peaceful place to chill,” says Novick. “Yoga offers them a choice to find peace within.”

“Classes have an amazing afterglow,” Lilly concludes. “Students linger, asking probing questions about the practice and the meaning of life. That’s an accomplishment with any teenager, let alone a group as highly guarded. It’s a pleasure to remove the blinders to see homeless and at-risk youth as fellow travelers on life’s journey.”

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Muhammad Siraj

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