Blankets cover the deteriorating wood floor in a small dance room at the Maria Bieshu School of Arts in Stefan Voda, Moldova. About 20 children gather for their first-ever yoga class, led by Peace Corps volunteer Casey Yunits. According to Yunits, in the Moldovan culture, touching the ground with bare skin is thought to cause illness, so some students keep their shoes on or skip seated poses. Others crowd onto the blankets, carefully avoiding the uncovered areas. "The first class we received a lot of giggling and resistance because yoga is something Moldovans have only seen on TV, if that," says Yunits, an amateur yoga instructor. "By the end of the week they were begging for more."
Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe. The average family earns less than $100 a month and continues to feel the effects of the Soviet Union's collapse: Most homes outside the capital, Chisinau, have no running water or gas, yet the cost of living is high.
Medical treatment is also limited and expensive. Shortly after Yunits arrived for the Peace Corps' Community and Organizational Development program, she met a limping woman who could not afford a doctor, so Yunits offered to demonstrate a few gentle stretches that might make it easier for the woman to stand and sit. The next day, the woman returned, eager to learn more. Word soon spread, and now a regular group meets with Yunits once a week so that the women might begin their own practices.
Her Peace Corps commitment is coming to an end now, but Yunits estimates that she has reached nearly 90 women and children. "Life is difficult here," she says. "It's not a part of the culture here to take time to relax, meditate, or simply enjoy life. Sharing yoga with the community has showed people that there can be time to let go for a just a little and be in touch with themselves."