The women slowly ease into their chairs as the yoga instructor turns up her music mix in the front of the room. The women are worn out, not from exercise but from their homelessness. On the wall in the back of the room is a painting of Maya Angelou with her quote, “You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.” These women, though facing homelessness, can still find inner peace.

The yoga instructor turns to the women and guides them through neck rolls, helping them to loosen their tense muscles. She stretches both arms above her head.

“Close your eyes and see how you feel,” the instructor calmly tells the women.

About three years ago, Yoga Activists, a DC-based non-profit dedicated to spreading yoga to underserved communities, began sending volunteers to Rachael’s Women’s Center. The hour-long classes are offered to the women in the center every Friday.

“The women really enjoy it,” said Michelle Durham, program director at Rachael’s. “It gets them thinking about different forms of relaxation.”

Rachael’s, a day shelter for homeless women, provides the women with meals and social services. However, even with such support available homelessness still leads to tremendous anxiety.

“Homelessness is very stressful,” explained Durham. “Living in a shelter can be very chaotic.”

The yoga sessions at Rachael’s Women’s Center help the women to discover a few moments of peace.

“It brings a sense of calm,” explained Christine Henry, one of the yoga instructors at Rachael’s. “It allows time to focus on themselves, and to try to not think about all the things that are going on in their lives.”

Before one particular yoga session, Henry heard several of the women complaining about pain in their feet and shoulders. So, she taught them an exercise to help ease the pain. She told them this was something very simple they could do while watching TV or waiting in line.

A few weeks later, one of the women at that session told Henry she had done that stretch while watching TV and that the stretch made her feel wonderful. For Henry, that was one of her most powerful moments while instructing at Rachael’s.

Henry said she encourages students at Rachael’s to relax by listening to their own bodies and their own breathing.

“When you’re homeless or in transitional housing, you don’t have a physical place to retreat,” Henry said. “Yoga gives you a retreat and a home, which you can find just within the mind. You go in, retreat, and come back refreshed. It’s what a home does.”

The yoga instructors who teach at Rachael’s adjust their lessons to meet the needs of the women at the shelter. For instance, instead of stretching on yoga mats, the women remain in their seats so that everyone, regardless mobility restrictions, can participate. Kanisha Scott, a yoga instructor at Rachael’s, emphasized the importance of allowing the women to proceed at their own paces.

In 2010, Rachael’s formally presented Yoga Activists with a special award as a way of thanking the organization for its support. The women at the shelter nominate the award recipients themselves.

“[The award] showed how much the women appreciate [the yoga classes],” said Durham.

Founded in 2008 by Jasmine Chehrazi, Yoga Activists is a non-profit organization based in DC that makes yoga available to those who might not otherwise have access to it;military personnel, homeless individuals, trauma survivors, and individuals struggling with addiction.

The organization operates under the principle that yoga inspires not only physical or mental action, but also social action. As stated in the group’s mission statement, “Yoga activism is the intentional action of sharing yoga with communities that might not otherwise experience it.”

Linda Robinson, a regular at the yoga sessions at Rachael’s, is grateful for the exercise and sense of calm offered by the yoga.

“I enjoy it, it’s relaxing,” she said. “It’s been years since I’ve had formal stretch exercise.”
Like Robinson, most women who come to Rachael’s Women’s Center often do not have the time or resources to routinely exercise their whole bodies.

“The most exercise the women get is walking,” explained Durham.

Yoga helps the women enjoy the rewards of healthy exercise.

“I feel good about structured exercise, regular exercise,” Robinson said. “This particular way I get it once a week. Otherwise, I don’t think I would, if not for yoga.”