Often when you spend your days surfing the web for interesting articles about yoga in the news, you encounter the same beautiful bodies in amazing asanas without a touch of fatigue in their faces or cellulite on their bodies. Their hair is perfectly styled, with manicured hands and pedicured feet and only the most pricey yoga clothes. It might turn readers off to lead your article or clip with a dirty, large, poorly dressed, unkempt person on the cover. So when you encounter a person who is breaking through those stereotypes in a profound way, you pay attention, and in the process you open your heart. One yoga teacher has been able to see beyond all of the external gloss of the growing popularity of Western yoga, and find beauty on the floor of a soup kitchen teaching hatha yoga to homeless men.
Julie Eisenberg, who was laid off from her job as a researcher for a labor union earlier this year, was approached by Deputy Director of Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington, D.C., Catherine Crum about teaching yoga once a week to those who have fallen on the hardest of times. She doesn’t gain any fame or notoriety from her choice to arrive every week at 8 a.m. to teach the handful of mostly men who lower themselves down onto the basement floor to sit on yoga mats and move their bodies. And though it may seem difficult to teach and practice yoga in an atmosphere full of distraction, both Julie and the mostly men she teaches choose to do it anyway.
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The classes of 2-8 students per week, are mostly men ages anywhere from 20 into their sixties and often Hispanic or African-American. The students come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, which was surprising to Eisenberg, and made her see “how tenuously many of us are connected to the ability to pay rent, buy food, and make ends meet on a day to day basis.” Drawing on her certification in Kundalini yoga and her background as an Iyengar practitioner prior to that, Eisenberg brings yoga that is accessible to all physical and mental abilities to Miriam’s Kitchen. It is also a practice meant to uplift the students, after all, Eisenberg says, “The purpose of Kundlini is for the students to surpass the teachers!”
The definition of Karma yoga is action without thought of reward or accomplishment. To act purely for the benefit and well being of others isn’t’ always an appealing idea to the tail end of the “me” generation. But Eisenberg has found the shift from her professional career to the path of selfless giving fairly smooth. Her background in labor organizing took her all over the country, exposing her to all walks of life, and a number of specialized populations. Through teaching occupational health and safety for her years as a labor organizer, she feels more prepared and familiar with the students at Miriam’s Kitchen, though she admits that she’s been learning a lot along the way. To supplement her understanding and ability, Eisenberg trained through an organization called www.streetyoga.org, who specialize in addressing the specific needs and considerations for the homeless.
In the process, Eisenberg and others in affiliation with Yoga District Studio in D.C., a studio that offers affordable or by-donation yoga classes in community-run yoga centers committed to eco-friendly practices, have formed an organization called Yoga Activist to continue and expand the work that Eisenberg has begun at Miriam’s Kitchen. The work in the last year seems to be having a definite impact. Some of the participants in the Miriam’s Kitchen classes are finding their way to community based donation classes in other studios and other areas beyond the walls of the soup kitchen. Also, the interest is starting to grow. Eisenberg said that every week they are practicing in the midst of a great deal of activity after breakfast at Miriam’s Kitchen, and people are paying attention. “Last week, a fellow in is early sixties asked if he could just watch,” said Eisenberg, “and I could tell by the look on his face at the end of our session that he’ll be on the mat with us soon.”
The yoga classes are touching more than just the physical bodies of the participants. As the Washington Post reported from one of the participants that as the stress and disappointment of life on the streets starts to mount, he “"breathe(s) out: ‘Whoooosh.’ And I calm down. I remember the stuff that Julie said, and I use that yoga on the street.”