At classes conducted by Street Yoga, you won’t find blocks, bolsters, or—sometimes—even yoga mats. The Pacific Northwest-based non-profit brings the healing power of meditation and asanas beyond studio walls, offering free trauma-informed yoga to youth facing adversity.
“We believe that access is a social justice issue,” says Jessica Osberg, co-director of the Seattle branch. “Often the people who don’t have access to the tools of yoga are those who might benefit from them the most. For the kids we work with, the deck has been stacked against them. They have or are currently experiencing homelessness, abuse, poverty, addiction, behavioral challenges and trauma.”
We sat down with Osberg and co-director Stephanie Toby to find out more about their work.
YogaJournal.com: What led you to Street Yoga?
Stephanie Toby: I had worked with the populations that Street Yoga serves in several capacities over the years. I also had developed strong yoga asana and meditation practices in my own life, and thus had experienced the power of these practices to support healing, empowerment, growth, wisdom, compassion…I wanted youth that do not have access to studios to have access to these practices.
Jessica Osberg: I am a social worker by training and all of my academic and professional experience has been youth-focused. When I started to practice yoga consistently and experienced firsthand the healing benefits of yoga, I saw immediately how the tools yoga has to offer might benefit the young people I serve.
YJ.com: Your mission states, “we envision a world where everyone has access to yoga.” Why is that so important?
ST: When human beings are hurting, they often go on to hurt themselves and others, but each of us has tremendous capacities for healing and for realizing great potential. Yoga asanas, mindful breathing, meditation, and other tools are incredibly powerful ways to get in touch with those innate capacities. We now have scientific evidence that mindful practices can rewire the brain. These practices reduce suffering (such as symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD). You don’t need equipment, not even a yoga mat, to practice. All you need is some guidance and practice with basic tools to access your own internal power.
YJ.com: How do Street Yoga classes differ from yoga classes at, say, an upscale studio?
JO: The biggest difference is likely the most subtle—our teachers are trained in teaching trauma-informed yoga classes. This means the teacher is aware that their SY students comprise more complicated needs and histories than the typical yoga student. Our teachers are trained to hold the container for their students, they recognize that yoga sometimes provokes an intense emotional response and are mindful about language and poses that might trigger painful memories.
YJ.com: What’s a story that stands out to you about the transformative effect of Street Yoga?
ST: There are so many stories! A teenage girl wrote us a letter thanking us for bringing a “good medicine” for her and the other students. She said that life was very stressful and everything seemed to be moving very fast. She didn’t know how to handle everything that was happening. She said that yoga calmed her but also gave her more “power.” (I love that!)
YJ.com: How has your work with Street Yoga changed or affected your personal practice?
ST: I learn so much by teaching. When students are able to hold space for their own anger, grief, and other uncomfortable emotions, and to bravely show their vulnerability, I am more able to do so with myself. And vice versa. We are truly supporting one another in mutual growth. I have so much admiration for the youth who come to our classes and bravely allow themselves to be vulnerable, so that they can truly come to know their own strength. It has also expanded how I think of my personal practice. At Street Yoga we have an expansive view of what it means to be practicing yoga. For example, a mindful conversation that creates a heart connection (union) between two people can be seen as practicing yoga.
YJ.com: Besides finding funding (always a challenge), what are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome?
JO: A big hurdle for us has been lack of understanding on behalf of the youth development community and the general population of the extent of yoga’s benefits, as well as misconceptions of yoga generally. Yoga is trendy right now. Some see it as a spiritual practice, and others consider it only exercise. The acceptance of yoga as a complement to therapy is slowly emerging but still questioned by many funders and foundations. The emerging research on the benefits of mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises and asana are helping, but there is still a long way to go before the full range of Street Yoga’s work is appreciated by traditional granting entities.
YJ.com: What’s your biggest wish for Street Yoga in Seattle?
JO: Our/my hope is that every youth development organization in Seattle and the surrounding area that desire to host a Street Yoga class would have one (or more!). Some of our other goals include developing population-specific yoga and mindfulness trainings (for example, youth with disordered eating or youth with histories of sexual abuse) and training youth workers, therapists, medical professionals, etc. across the country with these tools. Down the road, we endeavor to offer training for individuals and groups interested in creating their own yoga service organization for their community.
YJ.com: What can people do to help?
ST: There are so many ways to support this work and ensure youth facing adversity have access to these healing, empowering tools. The number one way that people can support our work right now is by donating. Financial support ensures that these classes can continue and that we can expand to reach more youth! We can also always use additional substitute teachers and sometimes additional regularly scheduled teachers. We hold trainings all over the country; the next Seattle training is this October.