WNC groups offer yoga to at-risk populations

HOME FOR THE HOMELESS: Light a Path offers a weekly yoga class for the unhoused population at Haywood Street Congregation. Photo courtesy of Light a Path

Jennifer Green grew up in Waynesville and never had any trouble with the law. But after she had several surgeries and was prescribed painkillers, she became addicted to opioids, which led her down a path of criminal activity. After ending up in Swannanoa Women’s Correctional Facility, Green sought help. She says, “I was looking to help relieve the stress and anxiety of what I had done.”

Yoga delivered relief, Green says. “When Light a Path brought yoga to the women’s prison, I went immediately to it. I knew what yoga had to offer but never realized how it [could] heal the soul. It really played a big part in my recovery and beginning to forgive myself.”

Throughout her 10-month sentence, Green practiced yoga with instructor Sierra Hollister, one of the founders of Light a Path. After being released, Green didn’t forget the positive impact the yoga practice had, so she gravitated to the Asheville Yoga Center for Hollister’s public classes. Broke at the time, Green received a three-month, unlimited pass, which helped her continue her practice.

Most inmates who are released, she says, find it difficult to secure a job. “I wanted to start bringing yoga to other people because it helped me,” says Green,  who decided she wanted to be a yoga instructor and so enrolled in the the 200-hour training at Asheville Yoga Center. “I wanted to be a part of Light a Path. It’s a wonderful way of giving back to the community.”

Green graduated from teacher training in January and now teaches yoga once a week in Waynesville. “I am introducing yoga to people who would not be able to experience it because there is not much yoga in Waynesville except at different gyms,” she says.

“There is so much trauma in the prison system,” Green continues. “To have comfort and healing space for an hour, even if once or twice a week, you are able to let yourself be a normal person again.”

There are not many ways to exercise in prison, Green says, and yoga helps heal the body from aches and pain. “It does help to relieve stress and anxiety, and it seems to help everyone that wants to try,” she says. “Everybody that tried it enjoyed it, and the only problem was people were so out of shape, and the next morning they were sore and not sure what to do with it. They had no exercise regimen in the past.”

Green stayed in touch with several other inmates who practiced yoga in prison and says it has helped them all — mentally, physically and emotionally — come through their sentence.

The most helpful were the breathing practices (pranayama) that Hollister brought to the inmates, although it seemed really “kooky” at the time, says Green, because she had never really experienced anything similar. “But looking back on it, that is what stands out the most in my mind … to calm my nervous system,” she adds. “I was able to sleep better. The breathing exercises were a calming practice, and a couple of the girls [at the prison] remembered the breathing practices, so that when they were triggered or something went wrong during the day at prison, they realized that they have something to help calm themselves down.”

A few of the women who enjoyed the yoga basics taught by Hollister would practice during the days when classes were not held, says Green. “We took whatever we could back with us and tried to do some of the moves,” she says. “I loved ‘sitali’ breathing, which was inhaling through the mouth, with the tongue curled up, and exhaling through the nose. When you inhale, it is cooling, so it cools the burning inside.”

Susan Kaagan, yoga teacher and board member of Light a Path, says success stories like Green’s illustrate the mission statement of the nonprofit: Connection creates resilience. “Jenny found herself incarcerated, and for her to come to a yoga class while being in the facility and being able to use yoga to personally create resilience — to control herself in the environment through movement, breath work and mindfulness — that can take an individual to a level of personal resiliency,” Kaagan says.

“Once out in the world [released from prison], for the unhoused or for those who don’t know where to sleep or where to eat, yoga can give them the stability to go back to at any time, any place and create that environment to move through a life of uncertainty.”

Started in August 2014, Light a Path initially consisted of  two yoga classes at Swannanoa Women’s Correctional Facility and one in Madison County for youths at risk. “We are trying to affect as many populations as possible,” says Kaagan, who notes that the nonprofit  has now grown to 22 classes per week with over 35 volunteers in three counties. The program serves youths at risk, the unhoused population, people in recovery and those in communities who are in low-income housing and have no access to transportation or financial resources to attend classes at a yoga studio, she explains.

The organization is still 100 percent volunteer-driven, Kaagan says, and while every population can benefit from yoga, those at risk have the most opportunity to really reap the benefits of stability. “Each of the volunteer teachers will tell you that the students at Light a Path come forward and say what has changed for them while attending the classes on regular basis,” she says.

“Not only did Green leave prison and change her own life around, she then went through yoga teacher training to share the experience. We know those stories are out there, and it is up to us to document them” with the help of donations and funding. “We believe we are in an exciting place, that we are being invited to expand and grow in order to respond. Part of what we are doing is organizing our fundraising to respond to our needs for verification of our work for those we are serving and those we haven’t reached yet.”

You don’t have to be a yoga teacher to volunteer with Light a Path, as the organization includes other modalities, such as acupuncture and massage, and is open to new ideas and ways to get involved for the Asheville community.

On Wednesday, May 3, Leah and Chloe Smith from the musical group Appalachia Rising will host a benefit concert for Light a Path at Asheville Yoga Center at 8 p.m. All proceeds benefit the nonprofit. Hollister will discuss activism and yoga during the event. Light a Path is also hosting Soul Session Yoga series, which will run for six consecutive Thursdays from May 4 to June 8 at New Belgium Brewery; the series is co-sponsored by the yoga clothing store Lululemon Athletica in Biltmore Village.

Yoga for older adults

Cyndy Kirkland knew she wanted to work with older people and veterans. A yoga instructor through the local nonprofit Council on Aging of Buncombe County, Kirkland had received therapeutic yoga for seniors training from Duke Integrative Medicine at Duke University. “I find with the older populations that it’s not like the younger population doing yoga,” says Kirkland. “It’s more about keeping the body loose and limber to improve daily living, range of motion and lung capacity, which diminishes as we age.”

Kirkland teaches chair yoga at the lunch site at Highland Farms and at Lakeview Center for Active Aging, which is a part of Black Mountain Recreation and Parks.

“Chair yoga is a great option for those seniors with limited mobility, and it makes our programming more diverse in giving our participants options on how they enjoy staying active,” says Phil Gale, senior dining and wellness program manager at COA. “The best way to prevent falls is to practice preventive medicine such as chair yoga. It can greatly reduce the chance of someone falling by improving their balance and strength, which is very important should they trip and need to catch themselves.”

COA wants to be the main source of information and assistance for seniors in the Asheville area, says Gale. It helps senior dining programs offer high-quality meals at inviting locations to help seniors stay healthy, both socially and physically. As the population of seniors increases, says Gale, it is vitally important for COA to be the agency where the Asheville community can find the answers it needs to its aging questions.

Kirkland’s chair yoga class, which is funded through COA, offers a social community aspect in addition to physical benefits. “I try to get them to focus on what is going on in the physical, mental and emotional level and to increase awareness on how that all works together,” says Kirkland. “I have them concentrate on setting aside judgment and celebrating what they can do versus what they can’t do.”

The senior population is not often thought of as an at-risk population, says Kirkland, but in fact seniors are at risk for multiple chronic diseases and for falls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that falls are the leading cause of injury among older adults, citing that every 20 seconds a senior dies from a fall. “They fear falling more than just about anything,” says Kirkland, who offers her chair yoga group the tools to help with fall prevention and awareness of strategies for decreasing the risk of falling, including proprioceptive awareness (knowing where our limbs are in space without having to look) and shifting the weight forward and back to find balance.

Kevin Mahoney, a state-certified peer counselor at the nonprofit Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, says that yoga can be an integral part of recovery. “We focus on the whole-spirit model, not just substance use, but the whole person,” says Mahoney.

The center will be offering yoga classes on Saturday mornings starting May 6 for anyone interested, Mahoney notes. Classes are free and will be held from 1 to 2 p.m. “We are offering yoga classes because it helps establish healthy connections.”

It is easier to go towards something instead of trying to avoid or not engage, Mahoney points out, and that includes moving in a different direction, not just waiting for addictive behaviors to come back. The mind-body connection is paramount to recovery, he says. “Anytime you can access the parasympathetic nervous system, like yoga offers, you are seeking safety within yourself.”

More Info

Light a Path

WHAT: Benefit concert for Light a Path with Rising Appalachia
WHERE: Asheville Yoga Center, 211 S Liberty St, youryoga.com/yoga-workshops
WHEN: Wednesday, May 3, 8-10 p.m. $40.

WHAT: Soul Session Series: 1-hour yoga practice benefiting Light a Path
WHERE: New Belgium Brewing, 21 Craven St, facebook.com/events/452596871739269/
WHEN: Thursday, May 4, to Thursday, June 8. 5:30-6:30 p.m. Donation based.

Jenny Green Yoga

Sunrise Recovery

Council on Aging of Buncombe County

CDC Statistics


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