Street Yoga: Helping Troubled Kids Find Inner Calm Amidst Outer Turmoil

By Mitchell Clute

Adolescence is never easy, even for kids with a good home and a loving family. But imagine the difficulties faced by kids on the street—the homeless, the undocumented, the runaways. Finding even a moment of calm in the midst of such a life might seem impossible.

But not if Street Yoga has something to say about it. This Seattle-based nonprofit has been offering yoga to kids in difficult circumstances since 2002, when founder Mark Lilly started the project in Portland. Lilly, a mindfulness and communication trainer, discovered that yoga was an essential survival skill in his own life and felt compelled to bring the calm that yoga offers to the people who need it most.

“Our yoga teachers go to where the kids are,” says executive director Richelle Harrell. “They teach in shelters and transitional facilities, working with kids just out of detention and foster care, with runaways, with undocumented youth.”

Often, Harrell says, kids in such adverse circumstances feel powerless—against their own lives, against their addictive behaviors, even against their own difficult emotions. But yoga offers these kids the tools to feel safe, calm and in control in their own bodies, regardless of external circumstance.

Because these kids have seen such adverse circumstances in their young lives, the teachers Street Yoga sends out need special training to ensure that their yoga classes take into account the unique situations of their students.

“You can’t teach yoga the usual way to people who have gone through massive trauma,” Harrell explains. “The language has to be more sensitive, and you have to give them choices, because a lot of the people who have these life experiences weren’t given choices.”

Given the choice to release stress through yoga postures, a lot of kids in the program dive in. “I get relief from stress,” says one participant. “I have time to work on myself, and I feel peaceful, and I love it,” recounts another. And though many of the facilities where Street Yoga offers classes are short-term solutions, some kids stick with their yoga practice for the long haul.

“Yoga has such an amazing ability to heal trauma,” Harrell says. “In class, you see the kids laughing, enjoying themselves and being able to let go of so much. It’s something they can continue with even when they leave the place they’re temporarily living.”

Often, these kids have gotten themselves in trouble because of quick tempers and impulsive behavior, and yoga is especially helpful in teaching them how to work with their anger, Harrell points out. “They can calm themselves, stay more present in their bodies, and have awareness of themselves in a different way,” she explains.

Though the only population Street Yoga serves directly is the youth of Seattle, the organization offers eighteen trainings annually, nationwide, to yoga teachers eager to learn how to offer their skills to populations who have experienced traumatic events. Directly and indirectly, thanks to Street Yoga, kids across America are discovering in yoga the tools they need to relax, calm down and make better choices—and that’s good news for everyone.