Breathing deeply, Colleen Kleya smiles as she practices yoga in the basement of the Connolly Library in Jamaica Plain, gracefully working through moves like downward dog and tree pose. However, this is not a traditional yoga class. Strapped to her chest in a baby carrier is Kleya’s seven-month-old daughter. To her left, Kleya’s other daughter, 3, glances up at her mom, mimicking each movement.
“Coming together as a community to play yoga is amazing, and it gives these kids such a great footbed to be in their bodies in a time right now where kids are spending way more times sitting in front of screens,” Kleya said. “It’s really great to come together and use this age-old practice to kind of cultivate movement as a community.”
Kleya and her daughters were three of 18 participants who attended the family yoga class, offered by an organization called Hands to Heart Center. For the past three years, HTHC has provided free yoga classes to communities in Boston in an effort to make the practice more accessible to marginalized groups of people.
“HTHC shares the healing practice of yoga with people affected by addiction, poverty and trauma in Boston,” said Susan Lovett, founder and director of the organization. “HTHC’s goals are to increase access to yoga for all, to bridge the wellness divide for individuals and communities and to mobilize, train and support yoga teachers as volunteers. Through these goals, HTHC is transforming yoga for equity and social justice.”
According to a study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, nearly 40 million Americans practice yoga. However, classes can cost up to $20, making yoga virtually inaccessible to people of low-income communities. That’s what makes the increase in organizations like HTHC so special, according to Andrew Tanner, chief ambassador of Yoga Alliance.
“Yoga was originally designed for the upper class,” Tanner said. “Modern postural yoga was first taught in India to the royal house and the royal children, so understanding trauma in the modern world and reaching more people is an evolution of yoga, and it’s an important one. It’s considered cutting edge for yoga teachers to have an understanding of how trauma lives in peoples bodies.”
HTHC strives to make the practice more readily available to those communities in need. The classes take place in various public spaces in Boston, such as libraries, community centers, detention units, domestic violence shelters, high-poverty schools, homeless shelters and public housing developments. The organization offers a variety of class styles, including yoga for adults, family yoga, gentle yoga for seniors, trauma-sensitive yoga and yoga for students with special needs, as well as classes taught in Spanish.
Each class is taught by volunteers who are certified yoga instructors, meaning they have undergone 200 hours of yoga training. Once accepted by HTHC, the volunteers go through further training that is specific to the organization and its goals, including trauma-informed teaching skills.
Anne DeSimone, one of HTHC’s 190 volunteer instructors, currently leads beginner’s yoga classes for adults held at the Eritrean Community Center in Roxbury, and was drawn to organization’s dedication to the community.
“When I became a yoga instructor, it was my goal to offer free classes to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to yoga, so I was very happy to hear that HTHC existed and provided the infrastructure for what I wanted to do,” she said. “In terms of my classes, my goal is really for people to leave feeling better than when they arrived, and for them, whatever their age, whatever their background, whatever is impacting them at the moment, to feel like yoga is accessible to them and something that they can work into their life.”
Whitney Handrich, who teaches family yoga classes with HTHC, also appreciates the values of diversity and acceptance that the organization promotes.
“Hands to Heart Center is about bringing yoga to the people,” Handrich said. “So sometimes, you know, you see these kind of studios, and some are fitness and a workout, and you think it’s like this super flexible, fit body that needs to do it, but yoga really is for everyone, and you just have to find the right style and introduction to it to get involved. I really liked the idea because I think it can be so rewarding to these populations that wouldn’t normally have access, and that’s what Hands to Heart Center does.”
Jordan Levinson teaches family yoga classes with Handrich and discussed the mental and physical benefits of yoga.
“I think, first of all, it just gets people to move, which is nice because nowadays a lot of people are just sitting in front of the TV or sitting at a desk, so you get to move your body,” Levinson said. “You also get to kind of clear your mind a little bit. It always makes me happy after I practice yoga, so I hope that everybody else can feel happy too.”
Handrich expanded on the idea that yoga can positively impact the mind.
“The mental benefits are kind of infinite,” she said. “You know, really being present in the moment, being more mindful, focusing on your breath, and just when you’re practicing it kind of makes all of your other thoughts disappear because you’re so focused on the moment, and that’s something that hopefully you train and work to develop in the rest of your life.”
Yoga is useful because it can be specially catered to people dealing with a variety of issues and ailments, according to Tanner.
“What defines yoga from physical exercise is its relationship to the breath—the breath is the gateway between our body and our emotions,” he said. “Yoga is specifically designed to bring awareness to the situation as it is and bring awareness to where the trauma lies in your body.”
Handrich echoed Tanner’s comments on the healing powers of yoga.
“It’s almost like Hands to Heart Center brings yoga to the people who, you could say, maybe need it the most, where they need to reconnect with themselves and heal and, depending on the community, bond with each other and develop trust,” she said. “I mean, we all have our different ups and downs and problems through life, and I think yoga is a really good method to kind of heal those wounds.”
The efforts of organizations like HTHC are not going unnoticed, particularly by industry experts like Tanner.
“Hands to Heart Center, these people are pioneers in my opinion, and the work they’re doing is important,” Tanner said. “I think were gonna see more and more of this yoga reaching out…yoga naturally makes people want to give back because it helps you connect with your sense of self. People are naturally kind and want to help others.”
Photo Series: Adult Beginner’s Yoga at the Eritrean Community Center