In her seven years as a yoga instructor, Sarah Holmes de Castro has taught in many glossy-floored studios. But she’s also led classes in less predictable settings, from transition houses for women leaving domestic violence to correctional institutions to recovery centres. The program coordinator of Yoga Outreach, a local nonprofit, volunteer-run group that provides free yoga to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the form, has witnessed firsthand the impact yoga can have on vulnerable populations.
“We’ve had feedback like, ”˜It helps me sleep better,’ ”˜It calms me down,’ ”˜It makes me feel more grounded,’ ”˜It makes me feel at home,’ ” de Castro tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “For people going through major transitions or upheaval, that’s pretty significant.
“Many clients we see have faced trauma in their lives,” she adds. “One of the things we have noticed in speaking with our clients is that”¦yoga is effective in helping people feel safe within their own bodies.”
Yoga Outreach got its start in 1996, when a representative from Prison Phoenix Trust—an Oxford, England–based charity that uses yoga and meditation to help prisoners dealing with substance misuse and anger management—gave a talk to Vancouver-area yoga instructors about the benefits of such practices. Her seminar inspired some of those local teachers, under the direction of Sandra Sammartino, to bring yoga into B.C.’s correctional system. Since then, Yoga Outreach has expanded, with programs currently running at Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, YWCA Munroe House (a safe house for women and their children fleeing abuse), Burnaby Youth Open Custody Centre, Riverview Hospital, Surrey Women’s Centre, the Vancouver Addictions Matrix Program (a group crystal-meth treatment program for youth), and Vancouver Coastal Health’s Centre for Concurrent Disorders (which treats people with chemical dependency and a serious psychiatric illness such as clinical depression or a thought disorder), among other places.
Although popular interest in yoga has turned the centuries-old practice into a thriving moneymaking industry, organizations like Yoga Outreach work to remove barriers that prevent many people from participating.
“The way we approach it is that anyone can and should be able to do yoga,” Holmes de Castro says. “Yoga is for everyone.”
Although anecdotal evidence for the benefits of yoga to disadvantaged or troubled women, men, and youths isn’t lacking, there’s research to back up the kind of claims Yoga Outreach participants make.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the Bethesda, Maryland–based National Institutes of Health, studies suggest that yoga can improve mood and sense of well-being, diminish the effects of stress, improve muscle relaxation, boost strength and flexibility, help with anxiety and insomnia, improve mind-body awareness, and positively affect levels of certain blood and brain chemicals.
The centre cautions that further investigation is needed, but the NCCAM is looking at the effects of yoga on everything from depression and immune function to smoking cessation and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Research related to the effects of yoga on overcoming addiction is especially promising.
According to a 2008 study in the Pennsylvania State University–based Journal of Counseling & Development, a combination of yoga and mindfulness has been shown to provide energy, satisfaction, and stability on an addict’s road to recovery.
In 2005, a study published in Dissertation Abstracts International, Section B: Sciences and Engineering, showed yoga produces long-lasting changes that can help people overcoming addiction to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It was found to be a positive way to cope with depression and anxiety.
Another benefit of yoga is that, when practised appropriately, it is generally safe and has few side effects.
The demand for yoga in settings such as drug-treatment centres and mental-health facilities is escalating, says Yoga Outreach vice president Delanie Dyck.
“Part of the foundation of yoga is that it is to be shared,” Dyck says by phone. “It’s our belief that we have a duty, karmically, to share it with those who can’t access it.
“We’re going through a big growth phase,” she adds, noting that Yoga Outreach also provides teacher training. “We’re focused on staying on track and serving our clients in the best way possible by increasing our stability.”
To that end, the organization is having its annual fundraiser, the Yoga Outreach Retreat, from May 27 to 29 at the North Vancouver Outdoor School in Paradise Valley, near Squamish. With this year’s theme being “compassion”, the weekend features instruction by 19 teachers in various types of yoga and meditation as well as concerts by Australian didjeridu master Shine Edgar and DJ Abheeru, who specializes in world music. Anyone can participate. (More details are at the Yoga Outreach website.)
Dyck says that regardless of whether someone’s dealing with emotional or physical pain, yoga has a therapeutic effect.
“It’s an energy-based healing modality that benefits anyone; it meets them where they’re at,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you can’t touch your toes; once you start conscious breathing, everything starts to calm down, your body and your mind.
“As soon as I began to practise yoga, I realized there was an element of my life I have control over”¦.What I do on the mat is mine alone. So for people in prison or overcoming addiction or trauma or abuse, yoga can be hugely empowering.”