photo by apdk's Photostream via FlickrWhile many people are immediately supportive of Street Yoga’s work, others initially express skepticism: “Why give yoga to street kids? Why not focus on getting them shelter, food, and jobs?” Unfortunately, comments such as these express a deep misunderstanding not only of our work, but also of what a person needs in order to be a successful member of society with a truly hopeful future.

As an organization we strive to partner with numerous other service providers who are already doing excellent work helping youth meet their most basic needs. If we were ever to observe youth not being appropriately served, we would of course speak up to obtain these services for youth or (as is the case with the Living Foods program, which teaches youth basic menu-planning, healthy food choices, and cooking skills) even provide those services ourselves. However, our focus remains on yoga because by maintaining this as our primary directive, we reinforce the concept that food and shelter are indeed NOT enough for a young person to develop into a whole and productive adult.

Most youth have arrived on the streets after traumatic experiences such as physical abuse, sexual assault, harassment for their sexuality or religion, abandonment, residential treatment or incarceration, mental health crisis, and addiction. To think that street youth with such tremendous personal issues could grow into healthy, safe adults with the mere provision of the basic necessities is misguided.

Photo by Davco9200 photostream via Flickr

In the course of managing traumatic experiences at home and later on the streets, many youth miss out on crucial elements of their development. Some transient youth were never able to remain in one school long enough to obtain a proper education, to learn how to deal with authority in a positive way, or to receive support and admiration from teachers and peers for a job well-done. Some youth develop serious addictions as coping mechanism for abuse experienced in childhood. Some youth have untreated mental health issues, lack the skills for understanding consequences and making healthy decisions, and engage in risky behaviors (such as prostitution, theft, assault, heavy drug use, self-harm). Sometimes youth act extremely juvenile, despite having witnessed levels of violence and chaos that most adults don’t confront.

It is important to remember that homeless kids have background stories, which is to say that there are reasons these youth do not or cannot live at home with their families in fearlessness and safety. Those reasons contribute to the personal damage that youth feel, a damage deep enough that it cannot be resolved merely by a meal at a soup kitchen or a bunk bed downtown. Just as any child needs love, encouragement, positive reinforcement, healthy peer and mentor relationships, opportunities for success in challenging new experiences, models of appropriate boundaries, time for self-reflection, rest, and play….so do homeless youth! And even more so!

The yoga experience gives youth a chance to interact with adults and other youth in a positive environment focused on self-growth and empowerment. Moreover, it gives them physical, mental, and emotional skills for dealing with pain and hardship. As difficult as it is to survive physically on the street, it is perhaps even more challenging for youth to maintain the sense of hope and personal worth that will steer them out of self-destructive behaviors and into safe lifestyles. Street Yoga strives to impart these less tangible, but nevertheless vital elements of youth development.

Max Kieslers photo via Flickr

We know yoga won’t solve everything. It’s not a substitute for good therapy or familial connections. It won’t teach kids how to fill out a job application or balance a check book. It won’t automatically make them suddenly attractive, thin, and enlightened. But maybe, just maybe, it can give youth the space and time to sit quietly with themselves and learn something. Maybe, they will even learn something about moving away from despair and into hope.