Marty Fleetwood describes teaching yoga classes for people experiencing homelessness and co-occurring disorders as a fine dance. The dance involves balancing the class so that it is not too difficult, nor too easy. She designed the class so that anyone can walk in for the first time and join the group.
Marty is the Executive Director of Homebase,Inc. and has worked on issues of affordable housing and homelessness for decades. She also has been practicing yoga and living yoga principles since she was sixteen years old and discovered a book on yoga at a local library. Her capacity to bring this self-care practice to people who have lived traumatic lives is a reflection of her belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to heal.
Marty’s “Yoga for You” classes began in the fall of 2008 in Berkeley, California. They are a collaboration between Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), the Rosa Parks Transitional House, and Piedmont Yoga Studio Community Programs. Classes are free and designed as a journey towards healing.
“We start the class with fifteen to twenty minutes of constructive rest. This includes lying down and breathing exercises called pranayana. It is an intentional focus on breath, a prelude to meditation that offers people a simple technique to learn how to calm down. It helps students enter into a relaxed state, and be in control of their minds and emotions,” says Marty.
Depending on who attends the class, Marty offers various exercises to warm up for suppleness and flexibility. Her observations of how students participate during warm up give Marty an understanding of how to teach the class. Essentially she offers a beginner-level yoga class that concludes with final relaxation. “It is so important for someone who is experiencing homelessness to see that there are small ways to regain control of some area of who they are and how they dialogue with others and their environment,” says Marty.
Students are encouraged to write journal entries before and after the class. Marty finds that people are calmer, more centered, happier, and more focused following yoga instruction. Because the classes are open to the entire agency, a diverse group of people attends. Many have physical challenges, or mental and emotional ones.
Participants in the classes have responded well to the personal attention of a hands-on approach in which Marty offers support to students to adjust poses. The instruction offers nourishment and sustenance in lives where both may have been absent.
Yoga practice has been instrumental in helping participants to practice poses on their own time. Students tell Marty that yoga practice has helped them to calm down when angry, focus concentration when making important decisions, and practice poses that aid in physical challenges such as digestion and balance.
Marty has seen changes in people over time, although most participants attend classes for three to six months and then something external in their lives changes. “There is one woman that comes to mind who lives in the house where we practice. Once she came to class and participated in the full session. Since then I have seen her drop in for the class and just hang out, lay down on a mat, wander through two or three times. While I have seen that she doesn’t want to practice yoga, we have created a community space that feels safe for her, and one of our cultural norms is that we wanted to create safety,” offers Marty.
She knows little about the lives of people who attend her class. This is intentional as they wanted to offer a yoga class and light conversations. “We want to provide a mainstream experience as one community,” says Marty.
Marty describes the classroom environment as uplifting and vital. “There is positive energy that is released when people share something that is constructive. We go to this yoga place of peace, balance, and quiet; it is life giving,” says Marty who shares that she gains as much as she offers from the class.
Marty encourages agencies that are working towards offering wellness classes not to give up. Once, she taught a class and no one showed up. But she says that if agencies continue to work at it, eventually the location and the people will all come together.
She contrasts the impact of an evening teaching a yoga class to an evening of watching television. Following a yoga class light radiates and Marty is able to float through her life, but after an evening of watching television, she turns it off and crawls away to go hide in her bed. She has found that yoga offers her a different, more fulfilling and energizing way to spend time with others.
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