“I got to 56 before I stopped counting. 56 different mattresses.”
- M, White, 59 years old.

“I always sleep with one eye open ‘cause you know, someone might rob you. I woke up once with my shoes gone off my feet. I won’t make that mistake again.”
- J, African American, 26 years old.

“I’ve been on the streets for 10 years and I know how it works, you always gotta watch. Nobody really cares about their brother. Out here, it’s every man for himself.”
- T, African American, 42 years old.

EmilyFrom dawn to dusk, those facing homelessness encounter profuse physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual challenges. The quotations above come from three men I have spoken to this year while doing my Contextual Education work at two different, but partnered, homeless shelters in downtown Atlanta. The words above have repeated in my mind and have woken me up at night—most notably as I lay in my bed, comfortable, safe, and secure. Homelessness pervades our individualistic and capitalistic society. Although there are numerous organizations, churches, and nonprofits working tirelessly to eradicate homelessness, and the obstacles that keep homelessness possible, these issues are ever-present.

As both a United Methodist Christian pursuing ordination, a pastoral care provider, and a certified yoga instructor, I desired to spend my time during Con Ed exploring the importance of holistic health and wellness for those facing trauma and experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is a social ill that has always laid heavy on my heart and I am thankful that I had the opportunity to serve in this area of ministry over the past year. Many people who are homeless have poor health, and this year I made it my mission to bring some of my skills and knowledge of holistic health to the homeless in Atlanta. My own experiences have taught me the importance of finding balance in all areas of life and seeking health on an intersectional basis where all dimensions of the self (such as spiritual, relational, emotional, and mental) are provided for.

The shelter where I spent most of my time this year is called The Evolution Center (TEC). This shelter is currently an all-male “low-barrier” facility. Low-barrier shelters are different than many homeless shelters because clients are not denied services if they arrive at the shelter under the influence of drugs or alcohol. After the encouragement and approval of my supervisor, Bec Cranford, I began to teach yoga to the clients at TEC.  

Emily teaches yoga at TEC.I must admit I was nervous about this new teaching opportunity. Before this year I had only taught yoga in corporate gyms, private studios, and accredited universities. Therefore, the populations I was used to teaching were highly privileged. Although nervous, my anxiety lessened when I reminded myself of my own yoga journey. I was introduced to yoga in a time of severe physical, spiritual, and emotional need. yoga changed my life and I knew it could bring healing to these men facing homelessness.

Yoga can be defined as a tool, a practice, or even a posture of living that if approached honestly and intentionally can bring healing in times of difficulty and distress. Yoga is about finding awareness of one’s internal and external state and controlling one’s mind. However, yoga does not solve or cure systemic issues that influence and contribute to injustices such as homelessness. Healing—in contrast to curing—is a change in perception and mind. Although yoga does not solve the issues of homelessness, it does bring about a better, more holistic quality of life. Healing requires a holistic approach where the full person is seen, recognized, and appreciated. While curing focuses more on the physical body, healing focuses on the interconnection of body, soul, and mind. 

To be honest, teaching yoga to the men at TEC came with a few stumbling blocks. Many men at TEC were skeptical of me and “my yoga.” Yoga is an unfamiliar practice for many, and as a privileged, young, white, female, I do not blame the men for their skepticism. In order to get more willing participants, I ended up calling the class sessions at TEC “stretching for stress.” Many clients would admit to the stress they face on and off the streets, and therefore this name proved to be attractive.

The single most essential thing I tried to teach in these yoga classes was how to breathe. Breathing is essential to life, and yet most of us hardly take the time to think about our breath. I knew that if these men could learn how to breathe in difficult and uncomfortable postures, then they could also breathe through uncontrollable and frustrating circumstances. Due to the transient nature of this population, sometimes I would only see a person in class once. Therefore, it was essential to make breathing practices at the forefront because it is a practice that once learned can be used for the rest of one’s life. As I tell all of my students, the real work in yoga happens when we step off the mat and go into the world. Breathing is easier in class; it’s when we go back into the streets that we can easily forget who we are.

Over this year I have also been blessed with teaching some of the faculty, students, and staff at Candler and the larger Emory University. This teaching experience, in conjunction with my Con Ed work, has really shaped me as an instructor. I have learned incredible lessons while watching each of my students grow on and off their mats. After the experiences I have had this year, I now approach my yoga ministry entirely differently. I have learned that when a person walks into a homeless shelter, a church, or steps onto a yoga mat, a good care provider (and yoga instructor) will search for what has been overlooked and ignored. Instead of seeing a drug addict, a teenage mother, or a person with a mental disability, I have learned to look for the hurt sojourner, the untold trauma, and the silenced story of the child of God before me. As both a pastoral care provider and yoga teacher, I am first and foremost devoted to bringing people my full attention, affirming their goodness and their humanity.

This May, I decided to travel to Nashville, Tennessee to do a training with James Fox, the leader and founder of the internationally recognized and accredited program called The Prison Yoga Project (PYP). While centered around issues of incarceration, this weekend intensive training uses mindfulness practices and trauma informed therapy techniques to equip yoga teachers with the skills necessary to bring yoga to various marginalized populations. James Fox has trained over 1,600 people in this trauma approach to yoga and there are now hundreds of prisons with yoga programs transforming the lives of people behind bars. I decided to do the PYP in order to learn more skills for teaching yoga to those experiencing trauma and I am pleased to say this training did that and more! I left this training not only with practical skills for teaching to hurt and marginalized populations, but also with stories, relationships, and memories that have (and will continue to) inspire me on my journey for justice and peace.

EmilyAs I grow as both a seminarian and yoga instructor, I would like to offer my newly acquired knowledge from PYP to anyone who may be a past or present victim of trauma. Through this training I have learned that yoga cannot “cure” someone’s trauma; however, I have seen and heard how the holistic practice of yoga is a tool that can bring about healing and health to people’s lives. Now trained by the PYP curriculum, I want to continue to serve those who are homeless. However, I am also seeking opportunities to offer my skills and passions for those facing addictions and confronted with sexual and domestic abuse.

After serving those experiencing homelessness in Atlanta, I have learned the need for finding a holistic approach for ministering to those facing trauma and crisis. We as a society need to work together to make homelessness both rare and brief. However, we also need to bring hope, comfort, and healing to those experiencing the sobering realities of homelessness today. Although there are many approaches to ministering to the homeless, I have discovered that yoga’s ethics, practices, and philosophy can be incorporated into the lives of those experiencing homelessness for positive and empowering spiritual development as well as long-term transformation and healing. If you are still not convinced of yoga’s healing properties, I encourage you to join me on the mat this fall.

Namaste (the light within me sees and acknowledges the light within each of you),


Top photo: Emily teaches yoga to a group of Candler students and staff on the Emory Quad this spring.