Take a deep breath. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Release the stress of the day.
That’s what Jay Winston instructs his night yoga class to do during their time together. The nine attendees are packed into a small room with only a few inches between their yoga mats. Children run in and out, laughing and sometimes crying. Various adults pop their heads into the room to see what’s going on. Doors slam in the distance. Every noise, from inside or outside the room, seems to bounce from wall to wall.
This is no ordinary yoga class.
“It’s the antithesis of a yoga studio,” Winston said. “It’s generally set up to be this calm and peaceful place, and this place tends to be very noisy with kids screaming.”
Winston, a resident of Mt. Airy, teaches yoga with the Traveling Yogis, a program founded in 2007 that places volunteers in homeless shelters across the city. Winston started volunteering for the organization last November to get in some practice after obtaining his yoga instruction license.
Traveling Yogis founder Marsha Aaron said she started the organization under similar circumstances. “One of the assignments was a community service project [utilizing your] new found education and I didn’t really know where to do that,” she said, adding that she offered her free services everywhere from nursing homes to the Ronald McDonald House—and was turned down. “Finally I started hitting homeless shelters, and they said, “we’ve been waiting for you.’”
Aaron said directors told her that they didn’t have many programs for those housed in the shelter to partake in. Traveler’s Aid director Antwan Diggins said the yoga class is the only program currently available at his West Philadelphia shelter—which is one of the few family shelters in the city. “On yoga day, everyone’s excited,” said Diggins. “They do yoga for the kids and the parents look forward to it because they get a break from the kids.”
Diggins—who participates in the classes himself—said class time is about more than just yoga. Many of the residents are victims of abuse. It’s an opportunity for them to create calm in a hectic day and think about positive ways of dealing with their emotions. “Yoga is that time for them to separate themselves from all that and have a relaxing experience. We see this as therapy, time to disconnect from all the craziness of the world. ”
“People are very stressed out usually so my big theme is finding peace in chaos,” said Winston. “If you want to be at peace, you have to be at peace right now.”
Nicole Copper, who had brought her toddler to class, said this was only her second time in the class, but she “fell in love with” it because it give her peace of mind. “You can go to your own place and relax,” she said. “Sometimes you need it.”
Copper’s one-year-old daughter likes the classes too. “Last time she was in here she tried to do it with me,” she said, giggling. “She came in here, she took off her clothes because she saw everybody else changing and she got comfortable.”
Nicole Johnson, a regular attendee of the classes, said she actually uses the breathing in her daily life to give herself some clarity. “When I’m angry, I start the breathing,” she said. “It calms me down.”
Not only is Winston helping to teach those at the shelter to be at peace, but they’re giving him some clarity too. “Circumstances have not put me in jail or rehab or a homeless shelter,” he said. “If there’s hope for them, there’s hope for me. I don’t see them as inherently any different than I am.”
This isn’t the first time Winston has offered his services to a group of people that “most of society spits on.” A few years back, when he was getting his PHD at the University of Rochester Winston participated in a program that allowed him to teach English at Auburn State Correctional Facility. “I was teaching Ivy League students in the afternoon and maximum-security prisoners at night,” he said. “And I actually liked [the prisoners] better. These guys who were doing 25 to life were very grateful that I was there. I’d walk in and each [prisoner] would come, shake my hand and thank me for being there.”
Winston found the prison program so rewarding that when he moved to Philadelphia, he continued targeting under served populations and has also taught creative writing to homeless individuals at DePaul House in Germantown.
Someday he’d like to do a class that somehow mixes yoga and creative writing. Until then, he’ll continue teaching yoga class at Traveler’s Aid