Yoga strengthens the body, the mind, and the spirit. Throughout the past century, this ancient practice has become increasingly popular in the West as a means of exercise and relaxation. Overworked Westerners, obsessed with maintaining a healthy body image, have sought both refuge and result in the practice of yoga. While virtually everyone has something to gain from practicing yoga, many people simply cannot afford to take classes at a studio, thus restricting yoga to a middle-class pastime.[i] Unfortunately, those who cannot afford yoga likely suffer from high levels of stress, and perhaps are those most in need of yoga’s healing remedies. Of course, true yoga requires no capital assets, and invites all to come as they naturally are; yet for a practice to be safe and complete (containing all Eight Limbs of Yoga), a certified yoga instructor must be available for guidance. Some instructors have taken it upon themselves to offer their services to the disenfranchised, going into homeless shelters and offering free yoga classes. Others have dedicated their time to researching the benefits of yoga for those suffering from trauma, addiction, anxiety, anger-management issues, depression, PTSD, and a host of other illnesses of both the physical and mental realm.[ii] This essay chronicles the benefits of yoga vis-à-vis homelessness by drawing on contemporary research and evaluating current programs that offer yoga to the homeless. It concludes that yoga has infinite potential to work with the non-physical aspects of the homeless’ being, such as their ability to combat stress, to tap into their consciousness, to achieve a greater sense of worth and well-being, and to mentally transport themselves out of their predicaments and into a better environment—a process that may, in effect, inspire tangible results in their efforts to lift themselves out of poverty.
In the face of inhuman conditions, the homeless remain human.[iii] Generalizing the homeless’ condition proves very difficult because the types of homeless people vary as much as the types of the general population. Pathways into homelessness range from degenerative support networks to addiction. No one main pathway into homelessness nor one specific type of homeless person exists.[iv] Viewing the homeless as one-dimensional will never be anything more than inadequate. Thus, a discussion of the benefits of yoga for the homeless must recognize the varying types of homeless people and expound on specific parts of the population before making more sweeping generalizations.
Parts of the homeless population suffer from addictions to alcohol, nicotine, drugs, gambling, shopping, or food. While the West generally tends to separate these different addictions into their own individual groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, Gambler’s Anonymous, etc.), the East views all addictions as caused by a weak Muladhara, or Root, Chakra, and thus suggests the same prescription for addictions of all kinds.[v] Recommended asanas (poses or postures) for working with addiction include Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), Adhomuka Svanasana (Downward Dog), Bhujangasana (Cobra), Trikonasana (Triangle), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), Pachimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold), and Savasana (Corpse). The physical aspect of yoga—the postures outlined above—help people activate their Muladhara Chakra, yet should be practiced in addition to meditation.
Similarly, yoga should be considered a supplement to rather than a replacement of a 12-step recovery program. Aruni Nan Futuronsky, the director of retreat and renewal at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, points out that the second step acknowledges a power greater than ourselves and the eleventh step dictates meditation and prayer: “I see addiction as the ultimate disconnection from the body. Yoga philosophy teaches us about addiction when it teaches us about running from sensations in the body.”[vi] For addicts who have developed stubborn intellectual responses and resistance to talk therapy, yoga offers a therapeutic alternative. “Yoga treats the biology and the psychology of an addict,” explains New York City addiction psychotherapist Mary Margaret Frederick, Ph.D. “Addicts are profoundly out of control internally. They have knee-jerk panic reactions and tempers. The will and determination yoga requires helps people regain control over their body and their mind.”’[vii] Yoga introduces the idea that a state of comfort can be achieved during uncomfortable physical and emotional states, encouraging the addict that he or she has the strength, patience, and tolerance to endure the pains of withdrawal.
Yoga also helps in eliminating negative thought patterns. An associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University, Roy King, Ph.D. and M.D., studied the biological impact of yoga on drug abuse and found that “by inhibiting the dopamine impulse, yoga helps inhibit cravings and negative emotional states that trigger drug abuse.”[viii] In other words, yoga reduces both the negative self-talk that leads to relapse, as well as the body’s desire for the substance. King’s account is supported by a randomized clinical trial using yoga at a methadone clinic in Boston: according to a study in the Journal of Alternative Therapies, yoga in a group setting is just as effective as traditional psychodynamic group therapy.[ix] One possible explanation is that, by turning the focus inward and focusing on the breath—experiencing and acknowledging the moment without judgment—the addict has access to the body’s healing mechanism and thus bypasses habitual responses and defenses. In yoga, the breath more fully represents the body’s life force, or prana. Actively lengthening and controlling the breath both invigorates and calms the mind, leading one to naturally “get high on the breath.”
Similar processes await the homeless individual entering yoga with trauma and resulting anxieties. Many people manifest their anxiety with abnormal breathing patterns that prevent the mind from concentrating, for which yoga can help by connecting breath and mind.[x] “Pranayama is able to give you a feeling of higher consciousness, and that can reduce anxiety,” says Darma Singh Khalsa, M.D.[xi] According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), anxiety is now the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in the country, and affects approximately 18 percent of the population.[xii] “An essential aspect of recovering from trauma is learning ways to calm down, or self-regulate. For thousands of years, yoga has been offered as a practice that helps one calm the mind and body.” write a team of researches from the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Center in Brookline, MA. “More recently, research has shown that yoga practices, including meditation, relaxation, and physical postures, can reduce autonomic sympathetic activation, muscle tension, and blood pressure, improve neuroendocrine and hormonal activity, decrease physical symptoms and emotional distress, and increase quality of life.”[xiii] They conclude that yoga addresses the cognitive, emotional, and physiological symptoms associated PTSD specifically and with all traumas that result in anxiety (for example, the anxieties caused by the state of being homeless).
Commonly, those suffering from an anxiety disorder also suffer from depression—nearly one half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, according to the ADAA.[xiv] A Harvard Mental Health Letter from 2009 details several studies that point towards yoga as treatment for depression: a 2008 study from the University of Utah that exposed yoga practitioners as having high pain tolerance and low pain-related brain activity; a German study from 2005 that documented significant yoga-driven improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, and well being, where depression scores improved by 50%, anxiety scores by 30%, and overall well-being scores by 65%; a 2005 study on the effects of a single yoga class for inpatients (including those with bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia) at a New Hampshire psychiatric hospital demonstrating significant reductions in average levels of tension, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and fatigue.[xv]
Scholarly research and clinical studies indicate yoga’s potential for naturally treating addiction, anxiety, depression, trauma and PTSD, and multiple programs across the country confirm it. Though not nearly as widespread as it ought to be, at least a dozen yoga instructors have been teaching yoga to the homeless population across the country for the past decade or so. From Washington, DC to Oakland, California, instructors working with the homeless chronicle their experiences as profoundly rewarding for both them and the population they serve.
Some teachers, like Julie Eisenberg work independent from a guiding organization and blog about their experiences. Eisenberg has been working with the homeless in D.C. for over four years. She emphasizes moving her students out of the constant fight-or-flight state and into relaxation through focusing on the breath. “Men and women who are homeless find it particularly difficult to calm their minds. It is a constant struggle to meet daily needs: shelter, food, clothing, and hygiene. Yoga can’t solve these problems, but it can help to re-focus the mind, at least for a short time.”[xvi] Significantly, her goal is not to end the cycle of homelessness, but rather to simply humanize the homeless by giving them love and respite from the hectic world.
Others have gone on to found organizations dedicated to bringing yoga to the homeless. Marty Fleetwood began offering free classes to the homeless in 2008 in Berkeley, California, in collaboration with Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), the Rosa Parks Transnational House, and Piedmont Yoga Studio Community Programs.[xvii] In her “Yoga for You” classes, she emphasizes using the breath to regain control of the mind and their inner dialogue. The program is designed as a three-week, one night a week program that instruct the homeless in yoga. In an interview, Marty points to the importance of social networks and support chains in avoiding homelessness, and believes part of what yoga offers the homeless is a positive community envionment:
One of the key things we are doing is creating a place to have a positive common experience with other people. It’s nice to see the bonding among some of the participants. Chat on your way in, chat on your way out, maybe develop some relationships. It is a healthy way to connect to other people. If you think about what happens in a yoga class, this is a fun way to learn to follow directions, show up in life and learn how to be in a common endeavor with people arriving at the same place. Clients say that we have given them tools to calm themselves, less hurried, stronger—its giving them something to do that allows them to feel good about themselves.[xviii]
Not far down the road, the Niroga Institute in Oakland, California uses mindful yoga, breathing techniques, and meditation in their work with schools, juvenile halls, homeless shelters, cancer hospitals, and rehab centers. Other programs include: YogaHOPE is a non-profit outreach organization dedicated to establishing rehabilitative yoga programs in residential facilities for undeserved women in substance abuse recovery, poor and homeless women, and victims of domestic violence; and Street Yoga is a non-profit organization that teaches yoga, mindful breathing, and compassionate communication to youth and their caregivers struggling with homelessness, poverty, abuse, addiction, trauma, and behavioral challenges.[xix] Street Yoga began in 2002 as a volunteer fueled grassroots organization in Portland, Oregon, and has since expanded into several other cities (including Seattle and New York City), and focuses on helping homeless or at-risk youth overcome trauma and create meaningful, healthy lives through yoga and mindfulness.[xx]
Using yoga for underserved and vulnerable populations has undoubtedly been growing over recent years, but remains relatively new.[xxi] Yoga Service Council (YSC), founded in 2009, remains one of two collaborate communities currently conducting research on the effects of yoga on the disenfranchised.[xxii] YSC hosts conferences that provide a forum for sharing major initiatives, advances, and research in the yoga service field. It also provides funding and scholarship opportunities to help advance their work. Its members currently work with veterans, trauma survivors, incarcerated adults and teens, cancer survivors, at-risk children, and survivors of domestic violence. The other organization, Yoga Activist, works with similar populations, but has more technology to support its mission. Yoga Activist provides extensive support of program set up, teacher training, program maintenance, and program assessment for yoga outreach programs across the country.[xxiii] Its YogaBase database tracks various service programs across the world, offers supplies such as mats or funding, and connects teachers interested in yoga service across the country.
Interestingly enough, the homeless population often goes unmentioned from yoga service projects. Veterans appear to be the most targeted, with their successes the most flaunted. Speculatively, this may be because the country generally sympathizes more for veterans than for the homeless. Yet it may also be because the transient homeless simply do not make for a great study population. Mark Lilly, founder of Street Yoga, says, “Doing anything with any sort of long-term perspective is literally impossible” with the homeless.[xxiv] Many homeless people move around the country relatively frequently, like Francis Phelan in William Kennedy’s Ironwood.[xxv]
What’s not certain is exactly what type of yoga would be best suited for the homeless. Most instructors use Kundalini yoga, and judging by the fact that the homeless continue returning to yoga, it must be working to at least some extent. Yet no one comprehensive study on the benefits of yoga for the homeless actually exists. This is due to the homeless’ transiency, but also to a lack of funding for such endeavors.
Growth happens when the mind and body are relaxed. Relaxing the mind helps it to develop clarity, which in turn allows one to better enter into each and every moment. Opportunity arises in the present moment, and if one lives in this moment with a clear mind, it becomes much easier to capitalize on opportunity. By studying the self, one comes to know the self, to develop compassion for the self, and to see the truth behind the self. This allows one to shed the extraneous layers built up over life that weigh one down and prevent the spirit from being light and true. Yoga etherealizes the human spirit, and actively works to counteract the forces that have compounded throughout life. Reducing the force of gravity is a wonderful parallel to the practice of yoga—to reduce the forces that act against us and that pull us towards the earth.
Yoga reduces the forces that pull people towards homelessness. Because of their transiency, their poverty, their physical limitations, and the dominance of their sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) over the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest), yoga may be particularly more difficult for the homeless. Yet they also have the most to gain from it. As yoga service programs suggest and recent studies prove, yoga has much to offer the homeless, including relaxation, focused breathing, gentle movements, and (perhaps most importantly) a supportive community. Taking the sense of self-worth provided to them by yoga, hopefully some homeless can turn Oms into homes.
[i] Here in South Bend, Indiana, the only yoga studio in the area (Solace) charges approximately $20 per class, with slight discounts going to people who purchase monthly memberships. Attending one class a week for a year would equate to roughly $1,040—a fee that would be difficult to afford for anyone earning under $30,000.
[ii] This essay focuses on the mental aspects of yoga, but for a review on the physical aspects of yoga, see James A. Raub, M.S., “Psychophysiologic Effts of Hatha Yoga on Musculoskeletal and Cardiopulmonary Function: A Literature Review,” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Vol. 8. No. 6 (2002), pp. 797-812.
[iii] A sentiment taken from Elliot Liebow, Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 1.
[iv] For a discussion of some causes of homelessness, see: Benedict Giamo and Jeffrey Grunberg. “Robert W. Rieber: Homelessness and Social Distress,” Beyond Homelessness: Frames of Reference. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), p. 165.
[v] The Muladhara Charka is the first Chakra and is associated with our basic needs of survival. When open, the Muladhara Chakra assists in taking the steps necessary to take care of yourself financially and provide for what is rightfully yours: a comfortable home, food, and clothing. The Charka becomes dysfunction due to reasons like insecurity, sexual abuse, basic requirements not met while growing up, issues of abandonment, etc.
[vi] Stacie Stukin, “Freedom from Addiction,” Yoga Journal (May/June 2002).
[x] Stacie Stukin, “The Anti-Drug for Anxiety,” Yoga Journal (March/April 2003).
[xiii] David Emerson, E-RYT, Ritu Sharma, PhD, Serena Chaudhry, and Jenn Turner, “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research,” International Journal of Yoga Therapy No. 19 (2009).
[xv] “Yoga for anxiety and depression,” Harvard Health Publications. (April 2009).
[xvi] Julie Eisenberg, “Teaching Yoga to the Homeless,” Spirit Voyage Blog. (Oct. 12, 2012), web accessed May 6, 2013 : http://www.spiritvoyage.com/blog/index.php/teaching-yoga-to-the-homeless/
[xvii] Wendy Grace Evans, “A Journey Toward Healing: Marty Fleetwood on Teaching Yoga,” Homelessness Resource Center. 2010. Web accessed May 6, 2013 : http://homeless.samhsa.gov/resource/a-journey-toward-healing-marty-fleetwood-on-teaching-yoga-49011.aspx
[xviii] Vlad Moskovksi, “Wellness for the Homeless: Interview with Marty Fleetwood,” Blog on yogamuse.net, (June 8, 2011), web accessed May 6, 2013 : http://www.yogamuse.net/wellness-for-the-homeless/ .
[xxi] See, for supporting evidence: Katie Zezima, “Bending, Posing and Teaching Beyond the Mat,” The New York Times (Jan. 24, 2008). Web accessed May 6, 2013 : http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/24/fashion/24fitness.html?_r=0 .
[xxiv] Lydia DePillis, “Oms for the Poor: can yoga help the homeless?” Slate. July 31, 2009.
[xxv] William Kennedy, Ironweed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1983).
DePillis, Lydia. “Oms for the Poor: can yoga help the homeless?” Slate. (July 31, 2009).
Giamo, Benedict and Jeffrey Grunberg. “Robert W. Rieber: Homelessness and Social Distress,” Beyond Homelessness: Frames of Reference. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), p. 165.
Eisenberg, Julie. “Teaching Yoga to the Homeless,” Spirit Voyage Blog. (Oct. 12, 2012).
Emerson, David, E-RYT, Ritu Sharma, PhD, Serena Chaudhry, and Jenn Turner, “Trauma- Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research,” International Journal of Yoga Therapy No. 19 (2009).
Evans, Wendy Grace. “A Journey Toward Healing: Marty Fleetwood on Teaching Yoga,” Homelessness Resource Center (2010).
Kennedy, William. Ironweed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1983).
Liebow, Elliot. Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).
Moskovksi, Vlad. “Wellness for the Homeless: Interview with Marty Fleetwood,” Blog on yogamuse.net, (June 8, 2011).
Raub, James A. M.S., “Psychophysiologic Effts of Hatha Yoga on Musculoskeletal and Cardiopulmonary Function: A Literature Review,” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine Vol. 8. No. 6 (2002)
Stukin, Stacie. “Freedom from Addiction,” Yoga Journal (May/June 2002).
Stukin, Stacie. “The Anti-Drug for Anxiety,” Yoga Journal (March/April 2003).
“Yoga for anxiety and depression,” Harvard Health Publications. (April 2009).
Zezima, Katie. “Bending, Posing and Teaching Beyond the Mat,” The New York Times (Jan. 24, 2008).