Stretching Past Homelessness with Yoga

Yoga participants practice their balance.


Every Tuesday from 3p.m. to 4 p.m., guests of Miriam’s Kitchen are encouraged to come to the dining room and participate in Miriam’s Studio yoga session.

For one hour a week, men and women can come here to take a break from their daily lives, loosen their muscles and relax their minds.

“They’re among the best students I’ve ever seen,” yoga instructor Julie Eisenberg said. “They don’t come in with a lot of ego. They do what they can do. They’re not shy about saying they’re not comfortable doing something. They do their best to do the best they can.”

The yoga program, which has been going on for three years, usually has two to six participants per week, according to Eisenberg.

“There’s a couple people who come every week, then others who just want to give it a try,” Eisenberg said. “There are two or three people who come once or twice a month, and two gentlemen who come every single week.”

The group ranges in age from young children whose parents bring them along to class, to one 73-year-old man. Most of the participants are in their 30s and 40s, but the group also does a bit of meditation, which the older participants like, Eisenberg said. The group is very accommodating to anyone interested in participating, including people with physical disabilities or in wheelchairs.

“If you can’t sit on the floor, you can sit in a chair and do the poses,” Eisenberg said. “Anyone can participate.”

Eisenberg said the biggest challenge for participants is focusing, given the amount of activity going on in the dining room during the sessions. She creates what she calls the “yoga bubble,” in which the students focus only on the movements they are doing and tune out everything else around them.

“We do a lot of balancing poses to help, because you have to focus to balance,” she said. “We try to make sure it’s not too difficult, but we do want people to be a little challenged and pushed beyond their comfort zone.”

Eisenberg said each session begins with a check-in. She asks the students how their week was, and asks new participants to introduce themselves. She also addresses any injuries that she needs to be mindful of.

Next the students tune in with deep breathing and stretching, and begin to loosen up. They do standing postures, balancing poses and begin coordinating their breathing with

movement. Eisenberg said that, depending on the class, they might go into deeper, more challenging yoga poses.

The session ends with five minutes of relaxation lying on their backs, “kind of like taking a nap.”

Eisenberg said the class is mixed level, with the students doing as much as they can do.

“It’s usually a pretty gentle class, but sometimes a group in good shape will want to detoxify,” she said. “There are some people who are very experienced and some who are brand new. We try to mold the class around the students.”

Students are encouraged to practice balance and long, deep breathing between classes.

“One of the biggest things is yoga allows them to quiet the minds,” she said. “When you don’t have a consistent, safe place to live, your mind is buzzing. One of the great benefits is you get to focus on calming down.”

Another benefit, Eisenberg said, is being able to loosen the body. Some students who could barely bend over when they started coming to class can now bend down and touch their toes, she said. Their skills have gotten better, and “better posture makes you feel better.”

Eisenberg, who used to work a day job downtown while teaching yoga on the side, first came to Miriam’s Kitchen when she was laid off from her job. She decided to come in and teach yoga after being asked by a friend who was also working there.

“It was an important transition from losing my job to taking the next steps in life,” she said. “Now [the program] has been continuous for three years without missing a class, even on holidays.”

Eisenberg encourages everyone to come in and try out the class, regardless of skill level.

“To me this is what yoga really is,” she said. “Really, yoga is about making the practice of relaxation available to everybody—not just people who can afford it. This is the true definition of yoga, working with people from all walks of life.”

One participant, Tiant Royal, has been going to Miriam’s Kitchen for yoga every week for two of the three years. He happened to find out about the program one day while he was at Miriam’s Kitchen.

“I wanted to do a little exercise,” he said. “It relaxes me. It’s good for stretching and keeping in good health.”

Now Royal is one of the most experienced students in the class.

“It’s something to look forward to,” he said. “I get to know people and talk to them. It keeps me going the rest of the week and keeps me motivated.”

Royal said he has made a lot of progress since starting out, and he can now bend all the way down to the floor. He thinks that anyone who is considering giving the program a shot should do so.

“A lot of people don’t stick it out,” he said. “I want them to try it out. They can probably do it if they hang on and keep trying.”

Eisenberg echoes this sentiment.

“Yoga is something that benefits not just the people practicing but the people around them, spreading that energy,” she said. “It’s about building personal power. It’s an empowering practice.”

Issues |Senior Citizens

Region |Washington DC

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