'Street Yoga' Helps Homeless Kids Find Balance Yoga isn't just for yuppies anymore. The instructors of a Portland-based organization say yoga can benefit homeless children both physically and mentally — from staying warm, to setting goals, to controlling anger.
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'Street Yoga' Helps Homeless Kids Find Balance

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'Street Yoga' Helps Homeless Kids Find Balance

'Street Yoga' Helps Homeless Kids Find Balance

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An organization that brings yoga to homeless kids sounds like a do-gooder's nirvana. Well, it is. Street Yoga is based in Portland, Oregon, but it runs training programs across the United States.

NPR's Neda Ulaby visited one in Washington, D.C.

NEDA ULABY: The 40 or so lithe, lovely yoga people here include social workers, a psychologist, medical students and some mental health care workers. But right now, they're role-playing rowdy, homeless teenagers in a yoga class.

(Soundbite of class)

ULABY: The organizers gave everyone parts. So, some are hyper, jumping up and down uncontrollably. Others pretend to sleep on their mats. They chat on their cell phones and chase each other around the room. It's pandemonium. Afterwards, the organizers asked the teacher to describe what she went through.

Ms. DANI BERAV (Yoga Teacher): Definitely the most intense yoga I've ever, ever led.

ULABY: Dani Berav said she'd carefully planned out a class that would express yoga's deep life lessons.

Ms. BERAV: It was, like, all out the window.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BERAV: You know, none of it was going to happen.

ULABY: But Street Yoga founder Mark Lilly has taught classes like that in real life. He believes yoga should be taught to the poor and vulnerable, not just entitled yuppies. His students include children so severely abused, they have brain damage from being hit.

Mr. MARK LILLY (Founder, Street Yoga): You'd come in and there'd be kids shaking - literally, physically shaking. They'd have big bruises. They would run across the room and they would try to punch the staff person. They would spit on another kid, or they would provoke a fight or they would go curl up in a ball and start crying.

ULABY: Lilly admits it'll take more than a few downward dogs to change these lives. But yoga, he says, can give some measure of order, strength and balance to people living in indescribably dysfunctional worlds.

Mr. LILLY: I love to bust out crow pose with most of these populations.

ULABY: Crow pose is pretty advanced. You balance your knees on your elbows while standing on your hands. But Lilly says most kids master it in a couple of weeks, which gives them something they don't get very often - a small success.

Mr. LILLY: I walk in the door and they're, like, oh my god, I can do crow pose. And I'm, like, what? And they're, like, oh my god, I can do crow pose. And I'm, like, okay, slow there, crow pose. And they're, like - and they do it, and they're, like, see, see? And then they're so excited.

ULABY: Lilly leads the class in tandem with a young social worker. Katie Arrants says teaching yoga to children reared in disruption means setting rules.

Ms. KATIE ARRANTS (Teacher, Street Yoga): Whether it's a comment about someone's ass in the air - I can't let that fly. That's not safe in my class.

ULABY: Arrant says she has to be flexible in more ways than one. Some kids show up in cleavage-baring clothes - not great for bending or stretching. And she says teachers must work with the rules of the program where they volunteer. Some don't let kids touch, others disallow drowsing on the yoga mat.

Ms. ARRANTS: A lot of homeless youth programs, it is not okay to nap anywhere anytime, because many youth are either paranoid schizophrenic, on drugs, blah, blah, blah and all they want to do is sleep.

ULABY: The hardest population, perhaps, are kids who were sexually abused. Erin O'Reilly works at an outpatient program for such kids in Portland. It's partnered with Street Yoga for about five years. Their clients are five years old to late teens. They see about 100 of them every week.

Ms. ERIN O'REILLY (Street Yoga): Many of our kids disassociate to the point of reporting not having any feeling in their bodies.

ULABY: O'Reilly says yoga gives these kids a chance to connect with their bodies trustfully for the first time. For them, she says, it's transformative.

Ms. O'REILLY: They feel powerful. They feel strong. They come in feeling so vulnerable and so helpless and they get to master their own bodies.

ULABY: Street Yoga is developing programs now with social workers that teach mindfulness in moments of crisis. For example, Mark Lilly says parents on the edge of abusing their kids can learn how to center and control themselves.

Mr. LILLY: And then the kids doesn't get taken away by DHS, and the cops aren't involved and this giant $100,000 nightmare begins for everybody. And so, we're really trying to break in at those critical half-seconds to see if we can stay people's hands and keep lives from completely unraveling.

ULABY: Lilly says his life was deeply bettered by yoga. He started Street Yoga partly because of a song by Neil Young.

Mr. LILLY: And there's a line from that that goes: We were giving, that's how we kept what we gave away.

(Soundbite of song "Comes A Time")

Mr. NEIL YOUNG (Singer): (Singing): We were right. We were giving. That's how we kept what we gave away.

ULABY: To keep what yoga gave him, Mark Lilly said he had to give it away as fast and as much as possible.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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