With yoga and meditation, homeless shelter helps women to heal their minds, bodies

With yoga and meditation, homeless shelter helps women to heal their minds, bodies

With three resonating taps against a crystal singing bowl, Ashley Krstulovich began a Sunday evening yoga and meditation class.

The students are a group of women staying at the Helping Hands of Springfield shelter. Classes have run since September, through a grant from the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln.

On this day, the women did yoga nidra – yoga sleep.

Laura Davis, the shelter’s executive director, had taken trauma-informed yoga and meditation from instructor Krstulovich. She had benefited from the practice and wanted to offer it the opportunity to female clients, who represent a minority of the unhoused people staying in the shelter. That’s not unusual; just 37 percent of Illinois’ documented adult homeless population are women.

Davis said the vast majority have survived some sort of interpersonal trauma, which is why she was so interested in offering this class.

“We don’t see as many chronically homeless women because women are typically more resourceful about finding places to go. Unfortunately, sometimes those places to go aren’t safe for them. They often end up in violent and/or sexually abusive situation, trafficked or whatever,’’ Davis said.

Bridget Harden is among the women there. She is a 52-year-old former Floridian who made her way to the Helping Hands shelter when she was thrown out of a friend’s apartment in August. “I felt like I’ve been alone. I felt abandoned. It’s been really rough.

“I’ve had a lot of trauma in my life,” she said. “Her meditation course has helped me a great deal. I’ve been kidnapped. I’ve had my head slammed on concrete. I’ve been raped. I have had so many things done to me, but I have been able to forget all of that.”

During the Sunday evening class, Krstulovich played soft music as she gave instructions. “Try to become aware of the weight of your body, your head, your arms, your seat, your legs. See if you can imagine all the bones in your body getting a little heavier, just like heavy bones sinking.”

“The meditation, for the most part, brings about rest. So through things like breathing, body awareness, visualization, very simple for the most part, accessible practices,” said the Springfield resident who has been teaching trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness for about nine years.

Harden said, “The yoga meditation helps me so much. I sleep better at night. You know, when I finish? My mind is more focused. My mind is more relaxed. I just feel just so good.”

Ashley Krstulovich and Bridget Harden hug after a yoga session at Helping Hands.

Maureen McKinney/NPR Illinois

Ashley Krstulovich and Bridget Harden hug after a yoga session at Helping Hands.

Harden, who faces several mental health issues, said, ‘It just relieves me. It relaxes me. It takes me away. It relaxes my mind, my body. I have a moment to just forget about my stress, my depression, my anxiety, my bipolar — just everything.”

Janny Li, a licensed clinical social worker in California, said she did a study for her graduate school work on trauma and homeless women.

“In our study, across the board, all the participants struggled with mental health, isolation, loneliness, many struggled with depression, many struggled with anxiety, PTSD, as well from sexual trauma. Mindfulness through yoga, meditation has been found to be super effective for people who struggle with those mental health symptoms.”

And yoga is one path toward peace of mind.

Jill Koester is a counselor at SIU Medicine’s Survivor Recovery Center, where the clients are victims of violence or have lost a loved one to it. The center offers yoga and meditation as part of the therapy. She explained how yoga works to soothe.

With trauma, she said, the body is activated into fight or flight mode. “To practice not during the activation, but to practice at other times, ways in which we can slow our breathing, relax our muscles, gain awareness of our body and be in the moment instead of in our head or someplace else can help everybody to better deal with the stresses of the day or more extreme trauma.”

Li said, “There are so many studies that have looked at how yoga is so effective for sexual (trauma) survivors, giving them their body … ownership back, connecting their mind and body, and just that mindfulness to slow down the automatic thoughts and responses.

That’s what Davis, the shelter director, sought.

“I can’t take away being homeless from them, right? I can’t take away that experience from them, but we can provide them with a space where they can learn the tools to be kind of safe in their own bodies,” she said.

Krstulovich said this taking of agency with their bodies is her main goal for these women, with whom she can identify.

“We all have reasons why we kind of move towards our interest. Mine is probably very personal,” she said. “I come from a lot of familial trauma, a lot of domestic violence, incarceration, addiction, the list goes on and on.”

That includes temporary homelessness. “I have a place in my heart. And there’s also a lot of it that I can relate to. So it’s easier for me to see the person in front of me when I do this work.’

Yoga for homeless women is not completely unique, says Cindy Manginelli, director of community engagement for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“We often see shelters across the country use … use meditation, or centering or activities like yoga, to help women, especially in domestic violence situations. Often, those are women who are struggling with feelings of shame and worthlessness, ” she said.

At first, at Helping Hands, women were hesitant about doing poses and unimpressed with mediation. It was the promise of relaxation that drew them in.

Before the opening of a new $9 million shelter and the start of the yoga class, Davis said, “There were no services available for them. And so, we saw a lot of more aggressive, more defensive behavior. We’re seeing much less of that now. There tends to be the group that comes this. They tend to be more friendly to each other. It’s built a community.”