Geo doesn’t miss our weekly yoga class. He’s always ready and even offers to help me set up mats, chairs and props. Many others have come to class based on Geo’s recommendations. He often struggles to focus at the beginning of class, as many of us do. After warming up a bit, he’s able to draw his attention to his breath. Throughout our practice, Geo is present and engaged, following verbal cues and maintaining body awareness. He tells me that he especially appreciates the final resting pose and I agree that it’s one of my favorites, as well. During savasana, I offer students a brief forehead massage and I know that Geo will accept, with enthusiasm. After class, he usually has comments and questions about his experience with the poses. Geo tells me that he’s been practicing on his own and that he’s hoping to participate in yoga class more than once a week after the summer ends. Every week, Geo expresses his appreciation for the class, for the practice, for our conversations. Geo is the reason I volunteer to teach yoga at the City of Boston’s Engagement Center.
My weekly classes have the common elements of any standard yoga class - a teacher providing cues, bodies in stillness and in motion, audible breathing sounds, curiosity and exploration. It also has far less common elements - regular interruptions, a chaotic environment, intermittent arguments between students. The Engagement Center is located near Mass Ave and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston. If you live in, work near or drive through the area, you’ve seen the people who spend time at the Engagement Center. These are the people who are on the streets, often walking in the middle of the road. Many are unkempt and semi-conscious, some are passed out. There are frequent fights, arrests, overdoses. The Engagement Center serves people with substance abuse disorder, most of whom are affected by the opioid epidemic. The majority of the people are homeless, almost all are actively using.
The Engagement Center itself is a large tent-like structure located next to the county jail. Guests can receive referrals to treatment but most people go there for a place to sit, to get hydrated and to temporarily seek relief from the blazing heat of the summer or the unrelenting cold of the winter. Sometimes, basic medical and clean socks are provided. Once a month, guests are able to have their hair cut by a volunteer barber. Coffee and phone chargers are available and there are patient, dedicated staff to maintain the safety of the visitors; de-escalating, intervening and mediating the many interpersonal conflicts that arise.
The general atmosphere of the Engagement Center is agitated, noisy and stressful. It is frequently crowded and it is never quiet. Unwashed bodies and dirty clothing combine to create strong, displeasing odors. But this center is also the site of one of Hands to Heart Center’s free, weekly trauma-sensitive yoga classes. Although most Americans who practice yoga do so in impeccably clean and quiet, well-equipped studios, Hands to Heart Center students practice in high-poverty schools, prisons, residential treatment programs and shelters. Where else could yoga be more necessary, more useful, more meaningful?
Some Hands to Heart Center students are anxious and hesitant, others are bold and playful. Every week, there are students like Geo who find the opportunity to locate their internal resources, to create space to breathe and time to connect mind and body. These students want what all yoga students want - to be at home in their bodies and in the world, to be relieved from suffering, to be in community with others. It’s a privilege to share my yoga practice with the Engagement Center community and to breathe in hope and breathe out peace, honoring the light in Geo.
Susan Lovett, LICSW, MEd
Hands to Heart Center, Director