On a Tuesday at Union Rescue Mission in Downtown LA’s Skid Row, the busy shelter turns calm for about half an hour.
The yoga class is the only weekly activity for women at the shelter and residents ask about it frequently.
A team of Cedars-Sinai social workers and mental health educators moves furniture, mutes the TV, and rolls out thin, black yoga mats in a circle.
About 20 women, among the hundreds who stay at the shelter every night, take their places on the mats and in nearby chairs.
Weekly yoga group
This yoga isn’t about contorting into a pretzel or perfecting downward-facing dog.
Sandra Gutierrez, a clinical social worker with Cedars-Sinai COACH for Kids, leads the weekly group in simple stretching and breathing exercises designed to calm and relax every kind of body, regardless of flexibility or mobility.
“A lot of our participants are sleeping on floors or inflatable beds, so we do a lot of stretching and slow movements to help the back and the legs,” she says. “People can join and do their own thing the whole time if that’s what their body needs.”
More than 50,000 people are experiencing homelessness in and around Los Angeles.
Union Rescue Mission provides temporary emergency shelter to women, men, and families, including those with working parents who don’t make enough to have a place of their own, says Brandie McFarland, a program manager at Union Rescue Mission.
The mission provides food, showers, clothing, and social work, but the yoga class is the only weekly activity for women at the shelter and residents ask about it frequently, Brandie says.
Sandra began teaching the classes at Union Rescue Mission in December 2018 after completing training in trauma-informed yoga through the nonprofit organization Street Yoga.
“If for just 30 minutes they can relax enough to fall asleep, the class has served its purpose.”
Exactly what she needed
Following a recent class, a first-time participant bounded toward Sandra to thank her.
“I was grumpy and sore when I came in here, and now I feel like my happy self again,” said Cardelia Corley, 62.
Cardelia joined the class only after observing the beginning, initially reluctant because she thought it would be complicated. But the former professional dancer, who recently began staying at the mission and has been feeling stressed, said the class was exactly what she needed.
“My heart and lungs are open. This really helped my body today.”
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Sandra’s sessions always close with guided meditation, during which she encourages deep breathing and focused attention designed to activate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates rest.
Women end the class either seated or lying on their backs. Frequently, someone falls asleep.
“These participants—who knows where they slept the night before,” Sandra says. “Often at night they can be very active trying to make sure someone’s not going to take their things or hurt them. If for just 30 minutes they can relax enough to fall asleep, the class has served its purpose.”
COACH for Kids is just one of the ways Cedars-Sinai is working toward a healthier Los Angeles. Learn more about our community benefit programs.