CHICAGO – With their brightly colored mats spread along a sidewalk, Tameka Lawson’s yoga students try to follow her instructions: concentrate on their breathing and focus on the beauty of their surroundings.
But this is Englewood, one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, where streets are dotted with boarded-up houses and overgrown lots, and residents are as familiar with the crackle of gunfire as the chime of an ice cream truck. So while the students stretch their arms to the sky, a man the size of a refrigerator stands guard over the class.
It seems odd, all these slow movements, deep breathing and talk about being centered in a neighborhood ruled by drug-dealing gangs.
It’s simply the latest attempt to curb violence in a city where the number of homicides and guns seized leads the nation. The hope is that yoga’s meditative focus will help cooler heads prevail the next time violence or vengeance looms.
The students “live in an environment where everything’s rushed, everything’s pressured. So if you breathe through certain things, you are able to see clearer. You really are,” said Lawson, executive director of a nonprofit group called I Grow Chicago. “Then they can act rather than react.”
The idea has even caught the attention of police. At least one officer has made Lawson’s class part of an anti-violence program for at-risk youths.
With yoga training, “when they get in a tense situation, they can breathe and relax and make the right decision instead of jumping out at someone and hitting them,” officer Daliah Goree said.
Students attest to the calming effect yoga has in an urban landscape of shifting rivalries and constant suspicion.
“I had a lot on my mind, and 10, 15 minutes [of yoga] eased my mind a whole lot,” said Karl Mables, 25, after taking the class for the first time.
Lawson taught yoga at area schools for three years before bringing it to this street earlier in the year.
She knew gangs might pose a threat. So before the sessions began, the man standing guard, Andres Brown, approached gang members who live nearby to assure them that the group posed no threat and sought their OK.
As Lawson’s students take their places on the mats, neighbors watch from a nearby porch. She leads the class through a series of moves, asking them to reach as high as they can and bend slowly until they touch the ground. They’re supposed to breathe in as they reach up and exhale on their way down.
The students go through similar moves while sitting, kneeling and lying down and sometimes put their hands together as if in prayer.
“Look at the sky, look at the beauty of nature and breathe in,” she tells them in a soothing voice. When they bow, she adds, they’re “bowing to the beauty of your Englewood community.”
The group does what she says, quietly, though some of the children get antsy and start to make moves that are a lot quicker and seemingly intended to get a laugh.
But when 32-year-old Daisy Flowers warns, “You ain’t getting no candy,” the hands of her 6-year-old niece and those of her young friends are suddenly back together in the prayer position.
Not surprisingly, just a few of her students are men or teenage boys.
“Guys think it’s for women [and] they say, ‘I’m not doing that,’ ” said Brown, an I Grow Chicago employee and yoga practitioner who stood in the street to remind passers-by that the teacher and her class were not alone – a message made clear by his 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame and black T-shirt that read “Real Men Do Yoga” on the back.
Everyone here understands that getting young men and teenage boys involved is key if there is any chance of using yoga to reduce violence. But Lawson and others have hope.
“This can help because some people riding past, slowing their cars down, maybe next time, you will have people park their cars and get out and want to do yoga,” Mables said.
Lawson thinks perhaps it already has.
Not long ago, she said, after a shooting a block away, a young man who has been taking yoga did what young men around here instinctively do: He ran to the scene.
But he soon returned to the building that houses I Grow Chicago and grabbed a hot dog from the snacks that are offered.
“He didn’t respond” to the violence, Lawson said. “He was able to think and process the situation and come back. That’s all we ask.”