Hands to Heart Center: Yoga for everyone

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.”

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Photo Series: Adult Beginner’s Yoga at the Eritrean Community Center

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USA women’s hockey update

On March 17, I wrote about how the U.S. women’s hockey team had decided to sit out the 2017 IIHF World Championship as a boycott over unfair wages. About a week later, they came to an agreement with USA Hockey, securing better wages and more benefits (business class airfare, disability insurance and more marketing and promotions for the team). Their annual salaries are now about $70,000, compared to the $6,000 they made in the past.

This was a huge victory for the team, and they went on to play in the IIFH World Championship, beating Canada in overtime for the gold (thanks, in part, to a game-winning assist by Northeastern alumna Kendall Coyne). The team received waves of praise and attention, which is great for the sport of women’s hockey. The women were brave in standing up to USA Hockey, and their efforts were rewarded in a myriad of ways.

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Women’s basketball madness

It was a wild weekend in women’s college basketball. The University of Connecticut and Mississippi State faced off in the national semifinals on Friday night, and most people (including myself) assumed UConn would steamroll Mississippi State on its way to its fifth-straight championship game appearance. However, that was not the case as Mississippi State’s Morgan William hit this beauty in overtime for the win. The Twitter world went crazy, and for good reason. UConn has been so dominant for so long that 65 percent of brackets had the Huskies winning it all this year. I have never seen/heard so much buzz around women’s basketball, so I think Mississippi State’s incredible win was actually great for the sport. Check out this nice recap from the New York Times.

South Carolina went on to beat Mississippi State for the national title, which was another twist in the storyline. This year’s tournament was fascinating, and I hope the excitement regarding women’s college hoops continues into the coming years.

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Trifecta podcast celebrates women in sports

Trifecta is an all-female ESPN podcast hosted by Sarah Spain, Jane McManus and Kate Fagan. The women talk about both men’s and women’s sports, and bring their interesting perspectives to the podcast world.

On Tuesday, they hosted a special, three-hour episode called The Trifecta: Women Making History Special as part of ESPN’s celebration of Women’s History Month. They talked to WNBA players Sue Bird and Stefanie Dolson, espnW commentator Julie Foudy, SportsCenter‘s Jemele Hill, ESPN Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza, USA beach volleyball player April Ross and USA hockey co-captain Hilary Knight.

The podcast touched on a variety of topics, but here are a few of my favorite highlights:

1. The discussion regarding the possibility of a female head coach in the NBA, focused on Becky Hammon, assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs. The hosts talked to Gregg Popovich, head coach of the Spurs.

“She’s been a significant part of what we do here,” Popovich said. “She’s a very capable, knowledgeable teacher, and I think it’s a great example for us and the NBA to have the first NBA woman assistant for her to be the caliber of coach she is.”

2. Knight and the hosts discussed how the USA women’s hockey team and USA hockey came to a wage agreement and avoided a boycott of the world championships.

“We were prepared to sit out World Championships, and it was a big sacrifice, but we felt  very passionate about the things we were asking for,” Knight said. “USA Hockey came to the table and wanted to show that they supported women in sport and women’s ice hockey, specifically, and we’re going to move forward and set this precedent and have a very exciting unfold of what’s to come for our sport.”

3. An interview with Hill, who spoke about diversity and how she gives back to other women.

“Mentorship was always really big,” Hill said. “It was certainly something that helped me in terms of my career and so I try to do what I can to let all the women in our business know that I’m here for whatever you need from me.”

4. Bird talked about WNBA’s struggles in keeping up with the NBA.

“I’ll be honest, when I was in college, I wasn’t checking the TV guide to see when WNBA games were on,” she said. “There’s a major disconnect, and it’s tough.”

5. Ross went into detail on the sexualization of women’s beach volleyball.

“I know that that’s out there, and I realize that some people are attracted to the sport because of it, and I don’t think that’s going to go away,” Ross said. “I mean, it’s just exacerbated by the fact that we’re wearing bikinis, which to me, seems only natural since we’re playing on the beach, and I don’t have an issue with it. I feel like I’ve worked really hard for my body, and I like our uniforms, I’m going to wear that, and kind of however people want to promote it, that’s how they’re going to promote it…Drawing people in is such a huge deal for our sport, and once they see our sport, they’re so impressed, and they fall in love with the athletic ability of the players and the game itself that I just feel like it’s almost a natural progression for us and kind of necessary in a way.”

 

Podcasts like these are especially important in elevating women’s voices and putting them at the forefront of the sports conversation. Female athletes and media members are so often discussed as an afterthought, so I enjoyed listening to their stories in detail. Spain put it best in her intro: “We don’t want to be cheerleaders.”

 

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USA women’s hockey team boycotts for equality

The difference between the careers of male professional hockey players and female professional hockey players is astounding. Female players are paid substantially less than men and often have to take on second and third jobs on top of their hockey careers.

The U.S. women’s hockey team has decided to sit out the 2017 IIHF World Championship this year as a boycott over unfair wages. The players are seeking better contracts with USA Hockey because according to USA Today, “Players have contracts with USA Hockey individually and receive $1,000 per month for six months prior to the Winter Olympics and receive no other compensation from USA Hockey…The U.S. Olympic Committee pays members of the U.S. women’s national hockey team a stipend to represent the country at the World Championship and a bonus based on Olympic success.”

The team will be fined $30,000 for boycotting, but the players believe it’s a worthy cause in order to be treated as equals in the long run.

This boycott will have a strong impact because, along with Canada, the USA hockey team is the most popular among fans in the World Championship, and their absence will definitely be felt. I commend these women for this decision, and I hope to see more support from USA Hockey in the future.

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SLAM reminds us that basketball is bigger than just the NBA

I started subscribing to SLAM Magazine because of the cool posters that come with every issue (and, to be honest, that’s still a major reason why I subscribe to this day – my bedroom looks a bit like a teenage boy’s room with posters of LeBron James and Allen Iverson plastered across the walls). However, in terms of content, I’m consistently impressed by SLAM’s coverage of women’s basketball. Although the ratio of WNBA to NBA coverage is nowhere near equal, SLAM focuses on women’s basketball way more than most sports outlets. From feature pieces on the players to simple game coverage and trade stories, SLAM highlights a league that doesn’t get a lot of recognition in the mainstream media. Take a look at this 2015 special edition featuring some of the best:

 

SLAM’s coverage of the WNBA playoffs is always extensive, and even women’s college and high school basketball gets a bit of attention from the magazine. It would be great to see more news outlets put this type of emphasis on women’s sports. In my opinion, if you consider yourself a basketball fan but have no interest in both the NBA and WNBA, you are cheating yourself out of a lot of quality basketball and storylines.

SLAM may not be the premier sports magazine in the country, but its ability to seamlessly blend both men’s and women’s basketball into one product is both progressive and commendable. I hope to see SLAM and other media outlets to continue to increase their coverage of women’s hoops.

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The big four of the Washington Post

I’ve heard a lot of discussions regarding women in positions on sports television, like broadcasting and analyzing, but it’s important not to forget about the print side of things. Although a reporter’s gender may not be as evident in print journalism, it’s still necessary to have a wide array of voices. I recently read this piece from the Washington Post on its four female writers covering the four major sports teams in D.C. I commend the Post for making an effort to diversify by employing women to these big sports, and I also think it’s great that the newspaper is spotlighting the women and their accomplishments in this piece, which includes a Q&A with many of the topics I’ve been discussing throughout this blog.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the piece, from Redskins beat writer Liz Clarke:

I’ve never felt that playing football or playing any particular sport was a prerequisite for covering the sport, as long as the reporter is inquisitive, diligent and persistent. White House correspondents, for example, typically haven’t run for office, nor have war correspondents necessarily served in battle. So I don’t think about or dwell on challenges that being a female in a male-dominated field might present.

I appreciate that these women make no excuses. It’s easy to talk about all of the challenges that women face in the sports field, but sometimes it’s important to just focus on the job itself and tackle it like you would in any field, regardless of gender, as Clarke states.

These are all accomplished women who have more than earned their current roles at one of the most prestigious newspapers in the country, and I look forward to reading their work in the future.

 

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