In 2002, Mark Lilly officially established Street Yoga, a non-profit organization that aims to bring the teachings of yoga to individuals and communities that tend to lack access to such holistic healing modalities. With the help of grants from the Northwest Health Foundation, the Oregon Community Foundation, and Peace Cereal, Street Yoga quickly became a vital activist network in Portland, which is home to thriving social justice and yoga scenes.
Not coincidentally, Portland also has an exceptionally large transient population. In an article published in the Portland Tribune in July 2009, it was noted that Oregon surpassed every other state with .54% of its residents reporting a status of homelessness. The word homeless does not necessarily refer to a person living on the street – it can also refer to someone utilizing shelters, staying with friends or family, living within the foster care system, transitioning from a supervised facility into independent living, and/or living in motels. In 2006, The League of Women Voters of Oregon found that the children and teens who had grown up in the foster care system were becoming homeless and jobless soon after cycling out at age 18. A large number of these teenagers and young adults have experienced significant trauma inflicted through domestic violence, sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction.
“Street Yoga was founded to attack root causes for youth homelessness and subsequent young adult poverty, welfare dependence, unemployment, as well as spousal and child abuse,” Mark states. “We seek to break the cycle of young people struggling hour by hour to survive on the streets, only to reach majority without the skills needed to live sanely in this society.”
Since 2004, the organization has grown considerably, and offers trainings in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Houston, Chicago, and Toronto. It’s upcoming training will take place in Manhattan at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center on the weekend of January 14th, and is being sponsored by Little Flower Yoga (register here).
“We have a huge demand for Street Yoga services across the country, but limited capacity and resources,” says executive director Adrienne Boxer. “Fundraising and building community takes a lot of time and energy. The challenge is to grow mindfully–slowly enough to that we don’t develop programs that we cannot support and quickly enough to respond to opportunites. It is a balancing act.”
Street Yoga teachers in Portland (some have extensive teacher training, while others have backgrounds in social work and related fields) regularly visit different locations throughout the city, including Outside In, Pioneer Special School, Community Transitional School, Janus Youth Programs, Morrison Child and Family Services, and the Donald E. Long Youth Detention Center. With about forty teachers and one hundred active volunteers, Street Yoga serves approximately one thousand individuals per year.
While Portland is an ideal city for the SY mission (there is a real need, a culture of karma yoga, and a willing volunteer force), the integrity of Street Yoga’s model lies in its universal applicability and its portability. People will travel to Portland from all over the country in order to undergo this training, but the SY yogis and yoginis are dedicated to establishing a strong, national (even international) web of teachers, volunteers, and students.
When asked about the future of Street Yoga, Adrienne replied, “We hope to have about 4 active Street Yoga branches in the next 5 years in cities across the country. Additionally, we will continue to train yoga teachers to give back to their communities, wherever they may live.”
The Street Yoga approach is one of pragmatism, which is why it works. The intensive 16-hour weekend-long workshop (which results in a E-RYT certification) teaches its participants how to effectively communicate yoga philosophy and asana with lessons and language that directly address the needs and circumstances of its constituents. The young men and women receiving Street Yoga services are not only learning warming, calming and strengthening poses and breathing exercises – they are being offered practices in self-care and self-respect.
Dozens of testimonials speak to the way ancient yogic concepts translate to the reality of the street. Several months ago, I was volunteering at a youth facility in Portland. Within the first five minutes of class, a young woman announced that she had been “waiting all week for yoga”. Some students took that precious hour to simply sit or lie down and relax, while others delighted in the shapes. In each class, we focused on asanas that create a sense of empowerment and groundedness, as well as asanas meant to soothe the neck, shoulders and back (areas that tend to hold tension), restoratives, relaxation, and gentle breathwork. By the time the hour was up, each and every student was visibly more at ease. If you think the effects of the yoga practice show up in profound ways in your own life, try seeing those effects on the face of someone else – it’s an incredible thing.
As someone who has been through the training, I can fully attest to its life-changing potential. It provides a solid education in selfless service, social realism, and humility. My dedication to the practice and teaching of yoga flourished and continues to as a result of this training, and the ongoing work of Street Yoga is a constant inspiration.
The motto of Street Yoga is live in yourself, and there is perhaps no truer statement when it comes to understanding what yoga is here to help us do. The choice to begin an earnest yoga practice emerges from a longing for growth and connection. The natural evolution of growing and connecting manifests as a desire to show up and serve. Street Yoga facilitates this process and provides a strong support system for those who choose to embrace the social implications of living with awareness and compassion.