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Yoga outreach brings healing to all D.C. communities

Monday - 7/8/2013, 9:59am  ET

Natalie Tomlin, special to

WASHINGTON - Yoga is doing more than improving the bodies and minds of those who belong to a local studio. Yoga outreach programs are extending their reach throughout the area, making the popular practice accessible to anyone who is interested.

Jasmine Chehrazi, founder of Yoga District and Yoga Activist, is one of many yoga instructors and enthusiasts in the area helping to combat yoga's cookie-cutter image.

"The point of the practice for many is self-realization and understanding who you really are," she says. "Everyone has that question -- everyone. It doesn't matter where you come from, how you look, whether you can touch your toes or not, what your cultural or economic or racial background is. We have to adapt the practice to make it relevant."

She believes yoga is a practice that serves each individual in a unique way, and she is helping to spread the practice of yoga to a variety of communities throughout the area.

In 2006, Chehrazi founded Yoga District, which offers affordable yoga classes at six not-for-profit, community-run yoga studios in D.C. A seventh studio is currently being constructed in Anacostia and will open later this year.

At Yoga District, instructors teach classes of all skill levels for $11 or less.

Despite the affordability of Yoga District classes (compared to other class rates in the D.C. area, which hover around $18 a session), Chehrazi quickly noticed the practice was still restricted to the studio setting and was not reaching a wider demographic. So in 2008, she created Yoga Activist.

Supported largely by Yoga District, Yoga Activist focuses on partnering yoga instructors with social service organizations that offer yoga programs for their communities. From classroom management to trauma sensitivity, the nonprofit outreach program helps prepare teachers for instructing yoga to under-served communities.

Teachers at Yoga Activist can also set up their own outreach programs, bringing yoga instruction to churches, schools, halfway houses, mental health centers, prisons and other locations where the community members may not otherwise have exposure to yoga.

Yoga Activist volunteer Carrie Mumah has been teaching with yoga outreach programs for two years. She currently works with Petworth Library to coordinate free weekly yoga classes open to the public.

Mumah instructs about 25 individuals each week, from ages 6 to 95, but most of her students are between 50 and 70 years old and practice yoga despite having arthritis and other injuries.

"It's a lot of fun, and it's kind of awesome that it's at a library because libraries are all about making things accessible and making information accessible to everyone in the community, so it's great to make yoga a part of that," Mumah says.

Her favorite yoga class she taught was at the mental health center, Green Door. Mumah facilitated a chair yoga class to the homeless and the recently homeless with severe mental illnesses.

Working with the mentally and physically impaired allowed Mumah to be creative and adapt the yoga practice to suit her students' unique abilities.

Yoga Activist board member Anna-Maria Garza first became involved with Yoga District in 2009. She chose this specific yoga service because of its unique mission to serve the community at a grassroots level.

Her first outreach program was at N Street Village, a shelter and community of empowerment for homeless and low-income women in the District. Now she teaches amputees at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center under the direction of Daniel Hickman.

"There are so many different communities that don't necessarily have access to yoga studios or don't even know that they want access to a yoga program, but … yoga works the same for everyone," Garza says. "We're all the same. We all have different experiences obviously, but the way that it works on the typical body is that it allows the body to heal itself and calm the mind."

According to Garza, outreach yoga gives people the chance to reconnect with themselves in ways they usually don't have the space for, while providing them with support as they stretch and strengthen their bodies.

Working with a quadruple amputee taught Garza there is always something to be done with the body. Not only does she teach amputees, but she also teaches anyone in the environment supporting the amputees' recoveries. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, families of the amputees and Red Cross volunteers all join the amputees in yoga sessions that ease the body and mind.

"It really comes down to being open and present in the environment … you also can't limit yourself to ‘Oh these guys are only going to be able to do certain things,'" Garza says. "Some of them are only 21 years old and full of fire and want to be challenged."

In addition to yoga at hospitals and other health centers, the practice has also entered D.C. schools.

Social workers, teachers and other social service providers can take week- long training sessions with Yoga Activist to learn how to integrate some yoga skills into their current classes and programs.

"Just having a little bit of centering … a ritual of centering breath or a movement and coordinating body and breath can really go a long way," Chehrazi says.

In fact, one elementary school teacher noticed significant improvement in students' concentration once she began a routine of bringing everyone together for deep breathing before and after recess.

Chehrazi also emphasizes the importance of connectivity between yoga instructors and enthusiasts across the country. In order to facilitate greater conversation between yoga teachers, Yoga Activist has its own database, Yoga Base, to promote the grassroots movement across the nation.

Teachers around the country can run a search to find other yogis who are doing similar outreach practices in their area, and they can also share surveys on the database that will be stored on their personal profile.

Chehrazi says the surveys help teachers track their progress while informing other teachers of their work in strengthening the community.

Yoga Activist also donates used mats to yoga outreach programs worldwide, from Haiti to D.C. Anyone who wishes to get rid of their yoga mat can drop it off at one of the Yoga District studios where they are cleaned and sorted for distribution.

If they are beyond use, Yoga Activist donates them to animal shelters where they can be used to line cages.

Never throwing a single mat away speaks to a dedication to sustainable practices at Yoga District and Yoga Activist. The studios use eco-friendly cleaning products and are transitioning to an entirely white vinegar-based cleaning system.

Yoga District prints flyers on recycled paper with eco-friendly ink, paints all of its walls with zero-VOC paint and keeps energy usage down as much as possible.

"We also consider the studios safe places," Chehrazi says. "We don't sell anything on site on purpose because we don't want it to be a commercial site. We call it a safe place so that people don't feel like they have to buy anything to be part of the community … it's kind of refreshing to just go into a place and all there is to do is just be."

How yoga is spreading to all communities in the D.C. area:

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