The reasons and stories for why people find themselves homeless are as varied as the trees you’d find in the forest. In the most recent homeless count for Portland, a point in time survey of those sleeping outside, in shelters, and in transitional housing, found 3,800 people in these situations and another 12,000 that were unstably housed, meaning they were couch-surfing or some other non-permanent housing situation.
Given that people experiencing homelessness are often reduced to focusing on meeting their basic needs: food, shelter and safety, it is a wonder to me that anyone would find their way to a yoga class.
However, at Outside In, an agency that provides comprehensive primary care medical services and support for transitional aged youth experiencing homelessness, we see people show up for class in spite of the more immediate or pressing needs they may face. It is clear that some come to class to meet their basic needs, like getting rest, and that’s okay. Sometimes yoga is just being on a yoga mat in a safe, warm and dry room for 60 minutes.
But more often, students are learning yoga as a survival skill in itself. Having lived in a state of hyperarousal on the streets, yoga is an opportunity to down shift their nervous system and maybe to start noticing or witnessing their bodies or thoughts, instead of just reacting.
In addition to the physical benefits of yoga, it is also an opportunity to connect. One particularly touching moment came toward the end of a yoga class as all the students gathered their belongings to leave and I was chatting with people to hear their feedback about the class. One person stood by the doorway, with their backpack on and a few other bags in hand, and before exiting, they said to me, “That class was amazing. Thank you. You are amazing.” Their words were so touching and felt so genuine, I blushed, and quickly replied, “You’re amazing too!”
There was nothing particularly special about that class to set it apart from all the other classes I’ve taught for Living Yoga. But for that brief moment I’d like to believe we connected as humans are supposed to, seeing and honoring each other’s light.
In a world where people experiencing homelessness often are ignored and literally pushed to the fringes of society, I am continually amazed by the resilience and kindness of the human spirit in spite of life’s unimaginable circumstances. And I have been honored to witness how these qualities are continually cultivated and grown in a simple yoga practice.