By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 18, 2016
ATLANTA—John McVay directs the dozen men sitting on mats in the downtown Atlanta gym to cross their legs. And when that’s done, he has them alternate their leg position. For these men who call Atlanta streets their home, it’s a deep stretch.
Then he tells the men to slow their breath and encourages them to “soften your gaze.” As the group squirms to get comfortable, McVay reminds them that people can only control their breath and how they react to events.
“Everything else you can’t control. Take a minute to check in,” he says.
He spurs the group to take a “victorious breath” and then another.
“Just by taking a deep breath, you are extraordinary,” says McVay. Between poses that earn small groans from a few, he makes a wisecrack, “Smile. It’s only yoga.”
The 45-minute class on the second floor of Central Presbyterian Church helps William Augustine as he walks all day.
“It is a lot more than I expected. The health benefits of it, like I said, the stretching of different muscles, the relaxation time, the clearing of the mind,” Augustine said. “It gives you a next step, where you are going next.”
Activities include weekly basketball game, choir
Sunday yoga is one of the extra activities available to men who sleep overnight at the Central Night Shelter. Others are the Atlanta Homeward Choir, which in December performed at the White House, and a Wednesday night basketball game. The 35-year-old shelter, open from November through March, is a joint ministry between the Presbyterian congregation and the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
There’s a cliché of yoga as a hobby for students with leisure time—reshaping the ancient physical practice far from its roots.
In this gym, the perception is turned on its head. The students on this day are all African-American men, some who untie tan work boots as class starts, and there isn’t any yoga apparel. Most are in blue jeans. They grit their teeth and grimace as they push their muscles to go a little farther and bend a little deeper into a stretch. The mats and other props were donated by instructor Mila Burgess and Lifetime Athletic.
When class ends, the group works together to set up mattresses on the gym floor where dozens will sleep that night.
Instructors who volunteer to teach at the shelter come from a variety of yoga backgrounds, but each class has “a gentle, restorative theme,” said McVay in an email.
The program meets weekly during the winter months when the shelter is open. Participants get to stay inside after the class, while other men wait outside for the shelter to open for the night. Usually the class size is fewer than 10, but a few more men have started to show up.
A 2013 study by Oxford University found after an experimental program prison inmates who practiced yoga had psychological benefits, including reducing their stress levels and improving their mental wellbeing.
Those who organize the night shelter would like downtown neighbors, students and community members to stretch and meditate with the men. Katie Bashor, a longtime leader at the shelter, said it will change your perception of people who are homeless if you struggle with the same stretches next to them, and it knits together the shelter clients and the community.
Said McVay, “It’s a really interesting connection. There are guys who are really isolated. The guys come more and more. It’s created this very neat community of guys.”
Augustine has been a regular for much of this season. He puts on loose-fitting sweatpants so he can bend more into the movements.
“My joints didn’t hurt as bad. I do a lot of walking, and it seemed like I was more flexible in my walking. I didn’t think about yoga before. The first time I did it, I felt so much more relaxed when I left,” he said.