Street-smart yoga

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 2, 2012 - 3:15 PM

A Minneapolis yoga studio sponsors an outreach program designed to bring health and harmony to the disadvantaged.

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Yoga instructor Pablo Charis believes lessons learned in his class can be translated directly to life on the street.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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The teenagers who seek help at Lutheran Social Services' Homeless Youth Center in St. Paul get a warm bed, nutritious meals and lessons on the Downward Facing Dog.

The latter is a pose taught in a weekly yoga class. Homeless teens might strike some as the last people who would be interested in the physical, mental and spiritual disciplines associated with ancient India, but instructor Pablo Charis begs to differ. He's convinced that the lessons learned in yoga can be translated directly to life on the street, an opinion that carries the credibility of firsthand experience.

"When I was 17, I lived on the street for a year," he said. And although he rarely talks about that in class, the kids know, said Susan Phillips, a staff member at center. "They can smell a fake a mile away," she said.

Charis' class is part of a program in which One Yoga Studio offers free lessons to nonprofit organizations serving homeless youths, low-income immigrants and pregnant teens. The Minneapolis studio -- which also offers the typical array of walk-in classes to people who can afford to pay for them -- believes that the exercises lead to personal growth.

"Yoga transforms trauma and opens new life," said Jaime Meyer, the studio's executive director. "Eighty percent of the yoga students I've talked to have used the phrase, 'Yoga saved my life.' Not just, 'Yoga is great.' Not, 'Yoga makes me feel good.' It saved lives that were in emotional, physical and spiritual crisis."

Michael, a young homeless man struggling with addiction, agreed. "This yoga has been like medicine for me," he said. Michael did not want his last name used because of his drug use.

The outreach program is on the cutting edge of a small but growing trend nationally. It's called Street Yoga in Portland, Ore., and Yoga Hope in Boston. Two weeks ago, One Yoga decided to dub its volunteer instructors the Karma Tribe (www.karmatribe.org) to keep its name out of the marketing so that teachers from other yoga studios can join the cause.

"Our goal is to say yes to every partner who calls because we have harnessed the volunteer energy of the yoga community," Meyer said.

Can competing studios put aside their business differences long enough to make a difference? So far, only the Blooma yoga studios, which specialize in pre- and postnatal training, have signed on as a partner. And getting others on board might take a little salesmanship, said Blooma founder Sarah Longacre.

"There's not a lot of collaboration among the yoga studios in the Twin Cities," she said. "But why not join forces for the greater good? We don't have the ability on our own to reach out and touch everyone in need. We couldn't be more excited to team up with One Yoga. We're going to make this happen."

Last year, there were 98 free classes that included about 2,000 student visits. The goal for next year is to double that.

Beyond the exercise mat

Yoga is more than just an exercise class, Meyer said. Its practice brings "healing, transformation, joy and peace of mind. ... Yoga has been proven effective for fitness, weight loss, coping skills and psycho-spiritual well-being."

While guiding a class through a series of moves, Charis offered advice that might have smacked of platitude were it not for his background.

"You have to train yourself to deal with stress," he lectured. "Life is about stimulus and reaction. You control the reaction. You have a choice how you're going to feel."

Later, he explained that life on the street often means dealing with frustration.

"It's a life filled with anger and impatience," he said. "You gain a sense of the world around you really quickly. You see everyone as a threat. You don't know whom you can trust."

Charis is in his second eight-week cycle of classes at the homeless center. When the first cycle started, the teens weren't entirely sold on the idea, said Annie Harm, a staff member who also takes the class.

"But when the eight weeks ended and we decided to take a couple of weeks off, they were asking when the classes would start again," she said.

Charis said that attitudes often change as people discover that their image of yoga is inaccurate. "There are a lot of preconceptions about what yoga is," he said. "It's not all earthy, crunchy-granola, tree-hugging. It's about balance, strength and energy."

After being homeless, Charis eventually went to college, got a degree in music and then played bass in the bands of a number of R&B artists, including B.B. King and George Duke. Now he splits his time between serving as a volunteer yoga instructor and teaching music. He assures his yoga students that the discipline they learn in his classes will help them get the focus they need to succeed at other endeavors.

"That year I spent on the street, I never thought that my life could turn around," he said. "When they realize that they really can do this, they can translate that feeling to the rest of their lives. If they can do that in their regular life, that makes me feel really good."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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