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Yoga Gardens transforms a Chicago food desert into a mecca for organic produce and an urban asana oasis.
The sun beams on yoga students as they flow through Sun Salutations while surrounded by flowers, trees, and an organic produce garden that will soon yield a cornucopia of lettuces, herbs, peppers, tomatoes, root vegetables, and more. You wouldn’t know it, but just three years ago, this lush landscape in Chicago’s low-income Garfield Park neighborhood was a pile of rubble.
The metamorphosis of this abandoned inner-city plot into a thriving yoga and garden center is the result of work by Yoga Gardens, a nonprofit organization formed by Morr Solomon, Brandy Harrison, and Frediliza David in 2012 to bring yoga and healthful, locally grown food to underserved areas in Chicago. Today, the Garfield Park location features an expansive deck for yoga classes bordered by more than 23 different organic herbs and vegetables, including 12 varieties of tomatoes, as well as dozens of native perennial plants, flowers, grasses, and trees.
From April through September, Yoga Gardens provides free weekly yoga classes to local residents ages 4 and up. Since the garden opened, more than 100 neighbors have attended the yoga sessions. “Classes were packed full last summer, and we had to add two yoga classes just to accommodate the demand,” says Solomon, vice president of the organization.
As part of the nonprofit’s nutritional mission, Yoga Gardens staff works with volunteers and neighbors to plant and maintain the vegetable and herb garden. As the produce becomes ready, yoga students and local residents pick up a portion of the harvest weekly. Last year, crops produced about 500 pounds of fresh food for local residents. “As yogis, we feel that healthy food is a right, not a luxury,” says Harrison, a certified yoga teacher.
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To extend the benefits of their work, Yoga Gardens staff encourages students to practice yoga at home as well as cultivate their own produce. “We often have excess seedlings, which we give to interested neighbors and students to grow in their homes or backyards,” says Solomon. Teachers then share informal gardening lessons with students before or after yoga class. “We’ll officially put a garden program on the schedule this year because the interest was so high last season,” Solomon adds.
This type of response to community interests and needs seems to be key to the success of Yoga Gardens. “If a student or resident comes to us with a problem, we think of ways to help,” Solomon says. “Unconditional love is the core of this project, which ends up reaching beyond yoga classes and gardening. The end goal is to improve the lives of people who live in underserved communities.”
Take Roy Robertson, a 23-year-old lifelong resident of Garfield Park who helped build the neighborhood’s yoga garden. In the process, he gained basic gardening and carpentry skills that he now uses at his part-time job in construction. “It definitely helped open up new doors in my career,” says Robertson, who attends college in Chicago. He also tried yoga at Yoga Gardens: “This was my first introduction to yoga, which brings peace, energy, and balance to my life,” he says.
Yoga Gardens plans to open a second location in the Bridgeport/Pilsen neighborhood, another economically challenged area of Chicago.