Spreading Karma The Kula Way To Troubled And Homeless Teens

Most of us would agree: there’s no place like home, but what if "home" was only where the mat is? At Covenant House, in Hell's Kitchen, homeless teens are rescued and provided with basic necessities, including a hot meal, a warm bed, a shower, and the most recent necessity: a weekly yoga class.

Every Wednesday afternoon, trained yoga instructors from Kula for Karma, a nonprofit that offers therapeutic yoga programs to people with physical, mental, and emotional challenges, lead an empowerment yoga class for homeless teens, ages 18-21, coming from a wide range of backgrounds, including domestic violence, addiction, and abandonment.

“A lot of these teens have experienced deep trauma,“ explained Loretta Turner, Program Manager at Kula for Karma. “This program was developed to offer at-risk youth the tools to deal with stress, depression, and the heaviness of anxiety they may be dealing with.” Turner teaches a weekly yoga class at Covenant House, full of tricky transitions and challenging inversions, balanced with a few restorative poses specifically designed for a handful of students enrolled in the Job Readiness Program.

The goal of offering yoga classes for this population is the hope that, when the teens are ready to apply for jobs, they learn how to take a moment to become aware of their anxies and postures, and remain present and grounded. “Yoga may not cure their trauma or get them a job, but it's certainly a great tool to have,” Turner added.

The organization is especially passionate about working with at-risk youth because their young minds are still developing. They want to provide them with the tools to heal their trauma through yoga, which prevents them from becoming future criminals or addicts. “What they need is empowerment,” Turner emphasized.

Working with a niche group of homeless teens doesn't always make for the smoothest 60-minute vinyasa flow. Some students are known to be “firecrackers" because they deal with anger issues and impulse control; others remain shutdown and totally inattentive.

For Turner, this triggers an empathetic approach to her teaching style, as she was once a teen who struggled with addiction and witnessed a lot of trauma. “Yoga fell into my lap at the age of 17, and it taught me to take a step back, not judge, and not be ashamed. There is room to change.” She uses encouraging cues in class like, “you can do this” and “here’s a pose to work towards," which transfers from accomplishment on the mat, into empowerment off the mat.

"Instead of running from the feelings of overwhelming-ness or frustration or anger, yoga allows me to absorb all those things and go through them, and come out the other side instead of being afraid or being taken over by them," said Jamie, a student at Covenant House

At this location, participants are fortunate to have new mats and props that have been donated. But Covenant House wants people to know that they are seeking more passionate certified yoga teachers looking to donate their time to this important community in need.

Specifically, they look for people who can step onto the mat and see these kids for who they are without judgment. “Teachers don't realize what good it does for them, being able to walk in with the intention of making someone’s day better, without looking to get something out of it,” Turner said. “Its just as transformative for me, as it is the people I’m serving.”

Founder of Kula for Karma, Geri Topher, leads intensive trainings for all volunteer teachers. Working with at-risk teens means coming up with tailored sequences that won’t trigger past traumas or anxieties. “You can’t teach certain exercises like breath of fire, because it may cause too much anxiety,” Topher explained, “or ask the teenage girls to get into poses like happy baby and down dog, because it’s possible they could be victims of previous sex trafficking.” Topher trains instructors how to start the class gently and gradually move into certain postures.

“Through building a safe container of trust,” Topher explained, “we’re giving these teens a little piece of peace.”

To get involved: click here.

—By Ashley Rose Howard

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