Are you looking for a way to expand your yoga practice outside of the confines of a yoga studio or gym? Consider starting a yoga class with an underserved community. An underserved community may be any population that does not have full access to much of what most of us living in the United States and other developed countries take for granted: financial stability, health care, jobs, social services, or even a home or transportation to get to work. You might find an underserved community living in an isolated rural town with few or no services available, or in a marginalized section of a city that’s plagued by poverty and violence. Underserved communities also include populations such as the homeless, veterans, people living with disabilities, the mentally ill, and immigrants. Whatever the population, yoga is a way to bring a few minutes of peace, calm and healing into the lives of people who need it most but have very little access.
It isn’t difficult to reach out to these underserved communities to propose setting up a yoga class: find a community center, social service organization, or a church that is willing to donate space. Put up signs, hit the streets to meet community members, and begin to invite people to attend a free yoga class. Educate the community about the potential health benefits of yoga and meditation; take a look at the great book Meditation as Medicine for some suggestions. No yoga mats? Sit on chairs (which is easier for many people with limited mobility) or blankets or towels.
Most members of underserved communities are aware of yoga but may not be sure what it entails. Start slowly, introducing easy pranayama or breathing exercises with some gentle physical movement. Explain what you are doing, and check in often with the students: How do you feel? Are you comfortable? Remind students to let you know if anything hurts. Don’t push students beyond their comfort level; just be caring, compassionate, and a good listener.
What if you aren’t a yoga teacher? You don’t need to be a certified yoga teacher to bring a group together from an underserved community for breathing and relaxation exercises. If you have access to a laptop or a DVD player, you could bring in a DVD to share with the class. Try one such as Kundalini Yoga for the Immune System (always a topic that is appreciated with underserved communities!), and practice the kriyas with the students. But be sure to remind them to modify or skip whatever is too hard for them!
You can also introduce meditation in your classes. The Kirtan Kriya is easy to learn and has been found to be very beneficial for the brain. You could also try other meditations with simple mantras, such as Ra Ma Da Sa. Or look for some fun pranayama (breathing) meditations in the book Praana Praanee Praanayam.
Bringing yoga to underserved communities is rewarding and fulfilling. It takes creativity, flexibility and patience however, and many (sometimes unexpected) challenges arise. It’s important to keep in mind that while yoga may bring some relief from day to day discomfort or suffering, we are not in a position to change an individual’s material circumstances. What we can do, however, is help empower people to begin to change their lives themselves. And if you approach your students with an open heart and you listen to what they tell you, you’ll open your own world up to receiving many benefits yourself from karma yoga practice.