Hands to Heart Center brings yoga to underserved communities in Greater Boston

The benefits of yoga run deep. There are the immediate physical benefits of increased flexibility and strength. It’s an exercise that somehow can also relieve stress and reduce inflammation. At its best, it promotes mindfulness through everyday techniques that can benefit your quality of life.

But yoga studios in America are typically associated with affluent areas, and certain communities may not have access or the funds to engage. That’s why on this week’s edition of the Joy Beat, GBH’s All Things Considered is celebrating the Hands to Heart Center – Yoga for the People.

This nonprofit shares the art of yoga with those dealing with addiction, poverty and trauma by offering free classes in low-income, underserved areas of Greater Boston. So far, Hands to Heart Center has provided over 5,600 free yoga classes.

Susan Lovett, founder of Hands to Heart Center and this week’s nominee for the Joy Beat, joins All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss bringing yoga to the people. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Arun Rath: Before we jump in, I also want to make sure we list out everything you do because it’s not just the Hands to Heart Center—that would be enough—but you’re a licensed clinical social worker, a K-8 teacher, obviously a yoga teacher and you teach part time at Boston University’s School of Social Work.

Susan Lovett: Yes, that’s pretty much everything. In addition to that, I’m a facilitator in this practice called TCTSY, for short. The long name is Trauma-Centered, Trauma-Sensitive Yoga, and it’s an evidence-based practice that has a very specific teaching style.

The only federally-funded yoga study has focused on TCTSY, where we get the evidence that shows us that this practice helps to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, increases capacity and builds resilience. As a social worker, these are all the kinds of skills that I’m looking for for my students and clients.

This type of yoga is based on a lot of choices for the students and some suggestions of where a student might notice sensations in their body. A big difference from studio teaching is that teachers often say, “Reach your right arm up and stretch over to the left. Doesn’t that feel great?”

We are not telling people how their bodies feel. We would never put our hands on a student. We stay on our mats at the front of the room and we’re very explicit about that. We’re guiding people, suggesting forms and poses and then letting people choose whether to follow that guidance or do something of their own.

It offers a lot of options, and for trauma survivors, that shows to be really healing. We say that in trauma, people didn’t have a choice, or their choice didn’t matter, so this type of yoga puts the choice in the hands of the students.

All of the Hands to Heart Center classes are free. They’re customized, and they’re all trauma-sensitive.

Rath: This is fascinating. It sounds like yoga with cognitive behavioral therapy—a way of outcome-based approaches that must really pay off for the people who do the work.

Lovett: They really do. Again, this was shown in the federally-funded study, which had two groups in a group of women with complex trauma, like child abuse, domestic violence and emotional abuse.

One group did cognitive behavioral therapy, so you’re right about that. The other group did that along with TCTSY. The second group had more symptom reduction, so symptoms decreased, and that decrease lasted longer.

Yoga can be done by anyone, anywhere. A young person could do this in their room or in a hallway, even if they live with an abuser. A person who’s incarcerated can do this in their cell. People who are unhoused can do this anywhere that they may find themselves. So, we encourage people to use it in their lives.

It does have a good fitness benefit, as you mentioned, but it’s also a coping skill—a strategy. Folks tell us that they can feel the difference in their bodies. I’ve worked with youth in Boston as a social worker for over 30 years, and I haven’t encountered an intervention that works this quickly, where someone can come into a room feeling agitated or unsafe in their body, and after 50 to 60 minutes of practice, they report that they feel calmer—a lower heart rate, more prepared or feeling like they are able to cope more with what comes next.

We’re doing it in schools. We’re in a lot of high-poverty schools in Boston. We’re doing it in prisons and jails across Massachusetts. We’re in domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters and residential treatment programs.

Our students are, generally speaking, people who have not stepped on a yoga mat before and may not think that the practice is for them. They often think that they can’t do it because we generally see images of young, white, thin women in advanced yoga practices. So most people would look at that and say, “I can’t do yoga. If that’s what yoga is, I can’t do that.”

Rath: The thing that is wonderful about Hands to Heart is—you’ve probably heard this before—for a lot of Indians or people of Indian background, yoga in America seems kind of out of balance in that it’s something that’s directed toward elite people. The idea that somebody couldn’t afford to start yoga seems kind of mad. You’re doing the work and taking it to the people who need it the most, where they need it.

Lovett: Yes, that’s exactly why we exist. Because I’m in places where people don’t often have access to resources—I’m in low-income communities of color in Boston, like Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan—people knew that I was a yoga teacher, so I was being asked to teach classes.

I honestly didn’t want to teach. I prefer being a student, but I was being asked to teach classes for mothers of homicide victims. Then, at a school where I worked in Dorchester, teachers asked me to work with students who were in wheelchairs. These are all really advanced requests, but what I ended up doing was just talking to a few yoga teachers I knew and said, “Would you ever be interested in volunteering? I could introduce you to the people.”

Every yoga teacher I talked to not only said yes, but they said it so enthusiastically, like they’ve been waiting for the question. I’ve got one foot in the world of yoga and another foot in this social work setting, and I can be the bridge. We’re bringing it out to people who may not feel comfortable walking into yoga studios, or who may literally not be able to walk into a yoga studio. That’s been a big success.

I always say we’re not just throwing used mats down on a basement floor and saying, “There’s your yoga class.” We’re really transforming this space so it feels luxurious. It doesn’t feel like the cafeteria of a community organization, and that model has proven to be really effective. We never run out of yoga teachers, and we never run out of organizations that want yoga for their clients, students and residents.

First appeared on www.wgbh.org

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