Yoga Outreach: Serving Sin City's Homeless Youth

"I look forward to each Tuesday evening knowing the time I spend with them on the mat is the most rewarding part of my week."
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2013-11-11-EileenLorraine.jpgThis is an interview with Eileen Lorraine, who was introduced to yoga when she was 17 years old by Jack England. At the time he taught at the Club Med in her hometown, where she first took yoga to escape the boredom of being a teen in a small retirement community. Unable to support her daughter on a yoga teacher's income, she relocated to Las Vegas in 2001 to pursue a steady paycheck and health insurance, joining corporate America. Now an executive assistant, she has returned to her first love -- teaching yoga -- to homeless youth.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

Honestly, my original motivation was a bit selfish. My daughter was preparing to leave home for college and I had anxiety about what life without her would be like. I had all this love to give and nowhere now to put it. I also knew I wanted to get back to volunteer work because in the past volunteering simply made me feel better. Serving others undeniably gives a sense of gratitude and happiness; we literally get more from it than we give. To work with this particular group at this time in my life was a case of divine timing. Through a friend I learned of the Help of Southern Nevada's Shannon West Homeless Youth Center in downtown Las Vegas and proposed the idea of offering yoga to the residents, who are between the ages of 16-24.

I look forward to each Tuesday evening knowing the time I spend with them on the mat is the most rewarding part of my week. I'm invested in the center and in these young adults' lives, and appreciate existing programs and the work being done by local organizations, such as HELP of Southern Nevada. The yoga outreach class was my inspiration to create the "I AM..." project, a monthly mentoring event that will link community professionals with our at-risk youth.

Is there a standout moment from your work with at-risk youth?

The simple fact that they show up to do yoga on the basketball court in downtown Las Vegas when it's still 110° at night is pretty standout. Specifically though, a really exciting moment was when a new resident saw me coming from my car with my mats and yelled at me, "Yo yoga teacher, I can't do yoga but can I watch?" He did, and after 40 minutes of us doing yoga the kid tried, and did the most perfect Bakasana and jumped into Chaturanga Dandasana. He was so excited and proud of himself for doing something he thought he couldn't. It's in those moments that I sit there and just smile with a sense of shared pride.

What did you know about the homeless you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I've always lived with a sense that I am one paycheck away from being homeless myself. Many of us live with guilt for not having 3-6 months' worth of living expenses saved, or for not putting as much in our 401k as we should. So I too lived with a quiet fear of losing my job and having to move back in with my mother. In working with this particular demographic, though, my anxiety has been replaced with a bigger sense of connection. My fear has been lifted, and I can say honestly to them, "I get you. I see myself in you, and I see you in me." It was embracing the fact that so little separates us that ultimately connected me to them.

Going into this I naively thought homelessness had a face. I held a cliché image of homelessness being that of a scruffy adult standing on the corner with a sign asking for money. But being at this youth center, I immediately saw how misguided this image was. These kids I work with are just like my daughter and her friends. The difference is in that they're at the center because their basic needs were not met for one reason or another, and currently they do not have the security of one home or parents and family who can provide stability for them. That has probably been the most eye-opening experience of all of this: What is the face of homelessness? It's everyone's.

What are distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

I have to go in not tied to any one plan. I go with a little "tool box." In that tool box I have the yoga postures, visualizations, playlists on my iPod (2-Pac is always a big hit), and essential oils. I may use all of them or I may use none of them -- I never know. I try to pick up on what's going on in their lives that week, so I allow the students to determine the flow and energy of the class. And there's also a ton of hugs with this group, they're big on the hugs!

It's really just hanging out with them and then saying, "Oh, by the way, we're going to do this thing called yoga and you know what? This meditation and breathing thing I'm going to show you, it actually helps us when we're feeling angry or frustrated because maybe someone was talking shit about us and here's the thing ... When we feel like that, instead of reacting and hitting that person, or turning to alcohol, drugs, or sex, maybe we can just pause a moment, and maybe we can take long, slow breaths, and think about what can we do to feel better in this situation that won't have bad consequences for us later..."

Also, I don't come to them with an ideological, personal agenda that yoga is the only answer, or the only way.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population you work with?

Be humble. Be relatable. Be honest. Teens will see right through any façade and they will call you out on it. If you want their attention and their respect, be real.

What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

Why limit it to just yoga? My hope is to see every yoga instructor, every holistic healer, every profession, and every person, participating in some kind of service work. Service work needs to become part of our cultural norm. I believe that the most direct and effective way to find personal happiness is through service to others. We all have talents and knowledge we can share with our community and the world. We all just need to get up and participate.

What other organizations do you admire?

I have huge respect and love for HELP of Southern Nevada, SafeNest, and Casa De Luz here in Las Vegas. Additionally I greatly admire Yoga Gangsters, Off The Mat, Give Back Yoga Foundation, Yoga Service Council, and the work that Tommy Rosen is doing in the way of yoga for recovery. I've been educating myself from his 2.0 series, as many of the youth I work with can be actively going through detox or in recovery. Thank you, all of you, for doing the work that you do.

Photo courtesy of Angelina Galindo Photography

Editor: Alice Trembour

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