You Call This Yoga?

Last night, I joined Howie Shareff at the Urban Ministries women’s shelter in downtown Raleigh where he conducts a yoga class two evenings a month. This was my first experience with You Call This Yoga (YCTY), a non-profit organization helping physically challenged and under-served communities improve their lives with yoga. I, myself, have practiced yoga on and off for many years, taking classes at local studios and occasionally traveling to a yoga workshop or retreat. This year, after retiring from IBM, I “took the plunge” and completed my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Howie is the founder and executive director of YCTY and I was there to shadow him — observe and learn — and, eventually, hopefully, lead some of his community classes.

Reality check #1: This is not yoga as portrayed in popular media with slender, young women and muscular men wearing body-hugging clothing doing acrobatic poses in a serene setting. We were in a bare-bones but functional kitchen that was crowded with plastic-covered tables and cafeteria-style chairs. Because of the limitations of the space and the variance in the women’s physical abilities, this class was conducted while seated on chairs, not on the floor with yoga mats. We moved the tables to open up one corner of the room and positioned several chairs to form a small semi-circle. The refrigerators clanked and groaned. Florescent lights shone overhead. People chatted and laughed noisily in the hallways. And so we began.

Reality check #2: You can eliminate 95% of what you do in a typical yoga class and still be doing yoga. Howie concentrated on the basics of attentive breathing and good body alignment while sitting, which is how we all spend a large part of our day. In yoga parlance, this amounted to seated versions of mountain, cat, cow, and goddess poses. That was it, without one mention of “asana”. The group was small and he was able to give each woman individual attention, asking permission before touching them lightly on the neck, shoulders, knees, or back to guide or encourage their efforts.

Reality check #3: Do not take anything for granted; the seemingly simplest things can be very difficult. For instance, the first instruction was to keep your legs parallel like railroad tracks, with your feet and knees aligned with your hips rather than splayed out like a cowgirl on a horse. Ingrained habits and various body types made this challenging for some. Frequent reminders were needed but common metaphors and gentle humor helped. The women focused, worked hard, and giggled often. Their camaraderie was noticeable, impressive.

Net-net: I was inspired by Howie’s ability to connect with these women, who were different than him in so many ways, and offer them yoga as an accessible tool to improve their lives both physically and mentally. Yoga helps them in small but important ways to get in touch with their bodies, build awareness and strength. Over time, the benefits can range from ease with common movements, like rising from a chair, to overall self-confidence. I think the women who return to his classes realize this. Yes, yoga has its place in the trendy studios, athletic gyms, and spiritual ashrams…but it is also useful and needed in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and shelters. I would feel privileged to be accepted by this community, to be able to sit in their circle and work with them.

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