Re-Centering, Yoga and RITI

Mar 25, 2020

Volunteer and instructor Laurie Kay shares her experiences and hopes for a safe yoga experience for our guests.

Pictured above students from Michigan pose with AJ in class.

For the last 14 months, I have been privileged to be allowed to teach a yoga class every Wednesday afternoon at the RITI day center. When I entered a Yoga Teacher Training program two years ago, I had no intention of teaching-I merely wanted to deepen my own knowledge of this practice which had transformed my life. But by the time I graduated from the 10-month-long training program, I had become more acutely aware of the inequities of a yoga culture which, for the most part, was limited to a segment of our population which was not very diverse in race, income, physical or mental ability, or in the financial or physical ability to travel to specific parts of town where studios were located. Because of my deeply held belief that yoga could benefit all people, therefore all people deserved to have access to it, I began to seek opportunities to bring yoga to people who did not have access to this transformative practice, but who could greatly benefit from it. After my daughter suggested RITI as a potential site for a class, I contacted RITI Program Director, Whitney Brown, who was immediately and graciously receptive to the idea of hosting a yoga class in the day center. Through the generosity of donors, I was able to obtain a selection of brightly colored mats and props to provide my students with a comfortable, safe yoga experience.

I carefully planned my first class, hoping to equip students with some calming mindfulness tools which they could use anytime and anywhere they needed them. I felt that this was especially important because my students often slept in a different place every night, so I hoped that it might be comforting to them to know that they had the skills to help them relax or feel comfortable no matter where they were by closing their eyes and focusing on their breath, or by practicing some simple, relaxing yoga poses which could be practiced anywhere.

Not surprisingly, I learned as much or more than my students did in my classes. I had wrongly assumed that most of my students would be unfamiliar with yoga. In fact, I discovered that many of them were longtime yoga or meditation practitioners who were excited and grateful to have a welcoming space in which they could once again experience yoga in community with others. If I thought that the traditional ending of a yoga class (saying “namaste” to each other) might seem too unfamiliar or weird to my students and left it out, they inevitably seemed disappointed and said it anyway. My vinyasa (flow) class quickly transitioned into a restorative yoga class, and then to a hybrid chair/mat class in which participants could choose whether to practice the restorative poses in a chair or on a mat, because it did not take me long to find out what I should have thought of before: that most of my students were absolutely exhausted from walking all day carrying heavy loads (both physical and mental), and many of them also had injuries or illnesses that made it difficult for them to move or to bend.

The weekly class attendance ranged from one to 20 students, but I never taught a class that was not followed by at least one student expressing great relief and joy and telling me how much they needed and enjoyed the practice. I am immensely grateful to Whitney and the entire RITI staff for providing me with such a welcoming, open-hearted environment in which to teach, and for recognizing the value in offering students one hour a week in which they could put down the physical, mental, and spiritual weight they were carrying and find relief in this soothing practice.I am grateful for the sense of community that we developed through breathing and practicing together. Friendships were formed and we enjoyed keeping up with each other’s lives each week and working together to create class playlists that included our regular participants’ favorite music.

Like everyone else, we now find ourselves in a time of great transition and uncertainty. Now that the coronavirus situation is causing so many closures, we are all at a standstill and are left to contemplate how we can continue to serve the community of those experiencing homelessness, a population which unfortunately is certain to grow because of the financial hardships due to loss of work that this crisis is causing. While finding a place to practice yoga is surely not at the top of the to-do list of our former guests, who are now most certainly occupied with seeking food and shelter, I remain committed to serving this community in whatever way I can, so I ask that, if any of you does see an opportunity for me to bring a yoga or meditation practice to whatever facility you are using to serve those experiencing homelessness, please let me know. Yoga does not require a fancy room or equipment (although I do have mats and props that I am able to bring anywhere that they’re needed). As one of my mentors, Jivana Heyman, says, “If you have a body and you can breathe, you can do yoga”—in a chair, sitting on the ground—wherever you are, even if you can’t move, you have the potential to turn your focus inward and reconnect your body, mind, and spirit. And there has rarely been a time when we have felt such a powerful need to remain calm in the face of such fear and uncertainty, and to feel safe, connected, and in community.

-Laurie Kay

We're grateful for volunteers like Laurie who share their talents.

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