Teaching Yoga Nidra in a Homeless Shelter

Sannyasi Anandaroopa, Vermont, USA

After moving back to Washington DC, I was looking for opportunities to “Serve, Love, Give” in a meaningful way through yoga. I had heard about an effective local non-profit in our neighbourhood serving only homeless women.

The targeted population includes but is not limited to, battered women, recovering drug abusers or alcoholics, mentally-ill patients or women with just plain bad economic luck, having lost employment which then spiralled into homelessness.

The shelter provides integrated services – from, not only short to long-term housing, but also ancillary support such as mental health counselling or job training. Basically, the clients can choose to at tend various activities, i.e. Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, art and craft work shops, poetry writing groups, resume building exercise, health seminar, hatha yoga class, among others, in order to receive points to be eligible for housing.

I proposed to the volunteer coordinator an additional option – a yoga nidra class, for who else needs to relax more than a homeless person?

Though the local non-profit is affiliated with the Lutheran Church next door, which had donated the land and building, the management keeps its tone free of any religious overtone in order to avoid alienating a client of a different or no faith. Its mission aims to serve all homeless women in Washington DC regard less of age, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

With the coordinator, we agreed to call the class ‘Yoga Relaxation’ for simplicity and to emphasize the relaxation component. For the first six months, a small but diverse group of about five clients, varying in age, race and physical ability, would attend my weekly session.

One overarching characteristic they all had in common related to the issue with security. Basic math, homeless people usually feel unsafe. This vulnerable population is an easy target for predators, especially the women and children. Some client would come to class with what seemed like all their worldly possession. At first, I had suggested putting their belongings to one side of the room, but there were huge objections. These priceless items need to be near them. Some refused to remove their shoes – a valuable commodity when you live on the street. Some want to spread themselves out in the large room where we conduct class rather than on the closely neat rows of yoga mats I had prearranged. The clients wanted a sense of personal space, which is a simple luxury not available in a dormitory-like shelter.

In the preparation phase of yoga nidra, we are asked to close our eyes. For some this was difficult, probably a fear of losing control or the lack of trust. One regular client would stare at me throughout the whole session. Actually, her focus was quite one-pointed! Maybe it was better that she didn’t close her eyes, not knowing her samskaras.

In yoga nidra the dictate is to practise in shavasana. For about half of the clients, lying on the floor posed either a physical challenge – back or neck pain – or a mental one, feeling exposed and vulnerable on the floor. Those adopted to practise in a sitting position on a chair. I made sure their feet were firmly planted on the ground. Also the instruction for the arms to be near the side of the body tends to be ignored. Most clients in shavasana would automatically cross their arms over their chest like a shield armour. A young lady in her 20s always had her teddy bear next to her mat. Given the characteristics of the clientele, special attention is required to create an environment where they feel relatively comfortable and safe even before the yoga nidra practice.

I keep the yoga nidra stages simple within the 45 minutes allotted: sankalpa, body rotation, breath awareness with backward counting, opposites and visualization. The shelter is decorated with inspirational quotes or ‘New Age’ affirmations.

As such, the clients are familiar with developing a sankalpa.

By the time of body rotation, most are fast asleep; some snore quite loudly. Those who aren’t snoring would fidget or shift consciously or unconsciously. In visualizations I knew to keep the images simple – sun, birds, flowers, etc. – to avoid any minefield triggering emotional or subconscious trauma.

Similar with most yoga nidra practitioners who sleep, all would eventually awaken at the conclusion. I made sure to provide ample time for the externalization process. I did have one lady who would sleep so deeply that only after several minutes (!) of Om chanting could she be awakened.

Eventually the word got out that you are put to sleep in the ‘Yoga Relaxation’ class. Technically, clients don’t receive credit for sleeping through an activity. But given the nature of the group and the effects of the yoga nidra practice, the clients are able to relax or sleep for 45 minutes or so, because they might not know where they will rest their head that night. The positive feedback comes with repeats who would return week after week. After two years of conducting the class at the shelter, my class size increased to about twenty clients per class.

As usual I get more out of the seva than what I put in, giving me the opportunity to observe my own assumptions about the homeless condition. I had to be flexible and adapt the teaching method while adhering to the basic tenets of yoga nidra. The clients tell me they look forward to coming to the class. They are so thankful. Given their predicament, I find their attitude humbling and noble. These ladies are my heroines.

As part of that mission, the management dictates all employees and volunteers to refer to the homeless women as ’clients’ in order to emphasize we work for them. We are here to serve their needs. The label ‘client’ carries less baggage (pun intended) than ‘homeless’.