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Yoga: How We Serve Homeless Youth

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This is an interview with Bob Altman, who in 2008 started winding down his law practice and ramping up his yoga practice. That summer he attended the Off the Mat, Into the World intensive at the Omega Institute. That experience started him on a path to yoga service. In 2011 he was working with the Georgia Governor's Office for Children and Families CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children) Task Force and began formulating the concept for bringing yoga and mindfulness to abused, homeless, and other under-served youth. In March 2012, a group called Grounded for Good formed as a yoga service initiative. In May 2012 it began offering yoga and mindfulness classes for homeless youths at the Covenant House in Atlanta.

Rob Schware: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

After a 30-year legal career that was always focused on helping people, and the experience with Off the Mat, Into the World, I had an epiphany one day in early 2011, while I was having lunch with a former paralegal, who told me about the work she was doing with CSEC victims through a faith-based organization in Atlanta. It was immediately clear to me that yoga and mindfulness was something that could truly benefit these young people. My motivation to bring yoga and mindfulness to under-served youth, while raising the level of social involvement by the yoga community in Atlanta, has been unwavering.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Grounded for Good and homeless youth?

There are two events I would mention out of the many standout moments I have experienced. One morning our primary teacher, Chelsea O'Halloran, asked the class if anyone had a pose they particularly liked. One young man raised his hand and said, "It's the breathing. Now, when I get stressed, I go to my room and do the deep breathing you taught us until I have calmed down, then I know I am ready to go on." The second occurred one day when we met with the Covenant House staff to see how they thought the program was going. One of the administrators said, "We want you to know that what you are doing is really changing our kids. We view this as much more than just an activity our youths are participating in."

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if any, have those assumptions changed?

Before Grounded for Good began yoga and mindfulness classes, I made an effort to study other people's experiences and insights growing out of working with traumatized and under-served communities. I took the Street Yoga training with Mark Lilly. I felt well-prepared, although I expected that there might be more acting out than there actually has been. The young people we serve are far more eager to experience what we have to offer than I expected.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio and what are the reasons for these differences?

When teaching abused, homeless, and other under-served communities we are far more aware of triggering issues and take great care to treat all participants as our equals. Some of the steps we take include having the young men in the front row (so the women are comfortable that they are not being checked out by the men), making sure that accessible variations of poses are available and articulated for those unable to physically achieve a pose, avoiding poses that might trigger a participant (such as happy baby pose) and bringing consciousness to any touching or adjustments. As a white male over the age of 60, I approach new classes and new students very carefully. Before I know the student, I have a no-touch policy and I avoid looking at females below their neck to avoid any possibility that my acts or motivation might be misunderstood.

We also emphasize the message that each participant is good and each participant is strong. This is a message that is repeated over and over, as we also try to provide tools such as breathing techniques that will allow the participant to take these positive feelings about themselves off the mat and into their world.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

We have found few real challenges in our work, other than occasional logistical challenges and expected issues working with young people who might be physically out of shape, pregnant, in a bad mood, or otherwise distracted. However, we welcome these situations and always have been able to have at least two teachers present for every class, which allows one person to address any special issues while the class goes on. Even if a student has done nothing but just lie on his or her mat for an entire class, we thank the young person for attending and always tell them that we hope they will return for the next class.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

Be informed, be yourself, and accept the students as your equal. While it is essential that anyone working with under-served communities be properly educated and trained, it is equally important that the teacher understand a view I learned from Seane Corn: "I am not here to 'help' you, I am here because I understand that our destinies are intertwined." When the participants perceive that you are treating them as equals they tend to open their hearts to the training and the message.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

It is my hope that in the next decade we will see a far greater awareness and participation by the yoga community in service programs. This might include a required "trauma and service" module in the 200-hour training requirements and a consciousness of a service obligation by every studio and teacher. The establishment of the Yoga Service Council and the yearly Yoga Service Conference is a great way to expand yoga service nationally and spread the word on opportunities and systems for yoga service.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

The greatest change for me has been a far deeper understanding that we are all one, and that yoga and mindfulness can truly change lives.

What other organizations do you admire?

Across the nation there are innumerable organizations and groups of people, big and small, who are working tirelessly to address the problems that kids face. I admire each and every person who steps out of their everyday world to reach out and touch a young person who is suffering.

For more by Rob Schware, click here.

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