Urban Lotus Project teaches young people contending with homelessness, incarceration and other stressful situations how to find a moment of peace
Yoga might be widely regarded as a path to composure and mindfulness, but it can have its awkward moments, too—especially if you’re eight months pregnant.
“Sometimes the downward facing dog is very hard, especially with a big, growing belly,” said Vanessa, a 23-year-old resident of Casa de Vida, a crisis pregnancy center in Reno.
Vanessa works during the day at the center’s store, folding and hanging free clothes for babies. In the evenings, she eats dinner with the center’s other three residents. After dinner, volunteers teach the women skills ranging from cooking and scrapbooking to setting boundaries and “Domestic Violence 101.”
And on Sunday evenings, the residents gather in a classroom downstairs for a yoga session—one that doesn’t necessarily come with the promise of serenity you might expect at a yoga studio. Lately, two infants have been attending.
“We have two pregnant girls, then we have two moms with their babies,” Vanessa said.
In the midst of a potentially boisterous class that may involve a few awkward-feeling poses, Vanessa has picked up a helpful stress-relieving technique.
“Last week, we were talking about how if we’re having negative, intrusive thoughts, if something’s really irritating us, to kind of chant a word, either ’love’ or ’peace,’ or ’compassion,’ and keep saying it over and over until those intrusive thoughts get out of our head,” she said. “I’ve been doing that a lot lately. When I’m irritated with someone, I say ’trust’ or ’empathy,’ kind of feel for them.”
As she repeats the words in her mind, she breathes in for four counts, then out for six counts. She said this practice helps her feel less annoyed. How long does the word need to be chanted to make this work? “It depends on how irritated you are,” she said.Fringe benefit
The instructors who teach yoga to Vanessa and her peers are volunteers with a nonprofit group called Urban Lotus Project. Hannah Bias, founder and director, explained the group’s mission: “We teach yoga practices to at-risk and under-served youth and young adults.”
Bias got into yoga herself about four years ago, when she was in her early 20s. She’d been experiencing lung problems, and a friend advised her that yoga might be a good way to strengthen her breath. Soon after she started, she did feel her lungs getting stronger, and she also noticed something she hadn’t expected.
“I started realizing this other—repair, I guess you could call it,” she said.
Bias didn’t want to get too personal about the details of her own upbringing, but she did say that she was “troubled” as a teen, adding, “I really struggled with my own self worth.”
She noticed that practicing yoga was making her more emotionally resilient. It was becoming easier to deal with stress, anxiety and depression.
“That’s when it clicked,” Bias said. “I wish I’d started doing this when I was younger. … I just kept thinking, man, if I had been learning this when I was 13—or 14 or 15, it would have saved my family a lot of trouble.”
She completed her first yoga teacher training in 2014. For a year, she taught classes at studios and gyms.
“It kept nagging at me that this practice could be used for younger people in such a beneficial way,” she said.
A friend, Jen Olsen, who later became one of Urban Lotus Project’s five board members, works for the Sparks Police Victim Services Unit. She advised Bias on which youth assistance organizations might welcome yoga instruction. Bias started with the Children’s Cabinet and Eddy House Youth Resource Center.
“I called them up and went there, and said, ’I’m starting up this project, and I’d like to teach your kids for free, and they said, ’OK, great,’” she said. The project gained momentum quickly. Now, around 20 volunteers visit about a dozen sites, including Jan Evans Juvenile Justice Center, Willow Springs residential treatment center, and a few elementary schools. They taught an estimated 2,000 students in 2016. Halfway through 2017, they’ve already exceeded that number.‘Trauma-informed’ yoga
In some ways, an Urban Lotus class looks a lot like a regular yoga class. There are yoga mats and many of the usual poses. But there are some differences. On a Friday evening class at Midtown Community Yoga—this one is a free, weekly class for any teens, whether in crisis or not—Bias began by asking students what kind of day they were having—thumbs up for good, thumbs pointed toward the wall for meh, thumbs down for bad.
“We do a check-in at the beginning and a check-in at the end of class, so the kids can assign a value to their experience,” she said. “The check-in we do at the end of class is—pick one word that best describes how you feel. It doesn’t have to be anything to do with yoga, not anything you think the teacher wants to hear, just whatever feels real and honest to you right now. It’s amazing [the feedback] we get. In juvenile detention, I get the word ’free’ more often than I would ever assume. We get words like ’hopeful.’ One little kid said he felt like he was in God’s hands at Sun Valley Elementary. That was a sweet experience.”
Another notable difference is that Urban Lotus instructors follow the conventions of a practice called “trauma-informed” yoga, which Bias learned through groups such as Prison Yoga Project, whose workshop she attended in San Francisco. This kind of yoga teaching involves a hands-off policy. Whereas, in a studio, a teacher might make a physical adjustment to a student, here they would not.
Language is also important. Teachers will suggest that a student take a particular pose, but they won’t flat-out tell them to.
“It empowers them,” said Bias. “It’s not a command. They get to be in control of their own body.”
“When I started studying about how trauma lives in the body and sought out [training], I realized that it does live in the body long beyond the original traumatic experience,” she said. “And you can only really heal from trauma once you feel like you’ve gained control over your own body and you rise to a place of personal power. And that’s exactly what yoga is, it’s getting out of the thinking mind and down into the feeling body, and it’s like the doorway. It’s not the only means of healing from traumatic experiences, but it’s a really excellent doorway to start that healing transformation.”
Bias admitted that at 14, she may well not have been open to the suggestion to take up sun salutations and meditative breathing, and she keeps that in mind when she teaches. She also keeps in mind that many of her students don’t come to her voluntarily, that yoga is often a required class—including for Vanessa and her peers at Casa De Vida.
“They’re either incarcerated or they’re hospitalized or homeless,” Bias said. “They’ve got real life stacked up against them. So they’re not seeking out yoga to be ultra-relaxing. It’s not like what we go seek when we go to a yoga studio.” She hopes that her efforts will lead to her students achieving better relaxation, sleep and impulse control.
“But what I say doesn’t really matter,” she said. “What they feel at the end of the class is really what gets them to understand.”