You won’t find the teenagers at Willow Springs Center, a Nevada psychiatric hospital for children, doing the cat-cow pose in yoga class. They don’t use straps or belts, or other objects to bend the body. And the yoga teachers, who visit from the Reno nonprofit Urban Lotus Project, won’t tell them what to do.
Instead, in these trauma-informed classes, teachers invite them to try a pose — if it feels right.
By stripping away everything nonessential, instructors show the young people what “mindful movement and breathing can do for a body and the nervous system in a space that feels welcoming and safe,” said Nicholas Stanton, executive director of the Nevada nonprofit that serves vulnerable youth and young adults.
This philosophy and approach allows participants to learn skills that can be used well after the yoga program has ended, Phil Mareno, a recreation therapy supervisor at Willow Springs said in an email. Yoga complements psychiatric care at the 116-bed residential treatment facility for adolescents, helping them manage their emotions.
The Urban Lotus Project was formed in 2015 by Hannah Bias, now a board member, who began teaching yoga to youth several years earlier. Since then, the group has served 14,000 people of all ages, specifically those impacted by addiction, violence, incarceration and homelessness.
When Stanton took the helm at the organization in January 2020 just before the pandemic hit, the project’s instructors held classes at 20 locations. They included charter schools serving students in low-income communities, juvenile detention centers, homeless services drop-in centers, programs serving foster youth and people with substance use and behavioral health problems.
COVID-19 brought everything to an abrupt halt.
Willow Springs, which had worked with Urban Lotus Project since 2016, suspended the yoga program outright. Other facilities where the nonprofit worked shifted to virtual classes.
More recently, the project’s yoga instructors have returned to some venues, however, mostly in outdoor spaces. Federal relief money and loyal monthly donors helped keep the organization afloat through the lean period, Stanton said.
Now, with pandemic restrictions somewhat loosened, the classes have expanded through partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club and the China Spring Youth Camp, a minimum-security facility for juvenile offenders between the ages of 12 and 18.
Many of the facilities the Urban Lotus Project works with declined to respond to questions about the program, citing confidentiality concerns for the young people involved. But Stanton said the teachers see and experience “powerful things.”
He offered one example — a young person at a juvenile detention center who attended class weekly, but refused to participate. The instructor’s attitude was non-confrontational, Stanton said, adding: “You can’t force someone to do yoga.”
Over time though, as the young man saw the effect of the class on his peers, he not only eventually joined in, he became one of the group’s most vocal champions of yoga.
“Do you know what the best part of my day is?” Stanton recounted the teen telling his teacher, “knowing you are going to walk through that door.”
Anonymous testimonials on the Urban Lotus Project’s website provide further insight into participants’ experiences:
“Yoga is my favorite place,” a 7-year-old student said.
“I slow my breathing down, calm my heart rate and it works; it’s a wonderful thing,” a 21-year-old reported.
“I feel a little closer to finding out who I really am inside,” a 13-year-old said.
The mother of a boy with attention deficits and problems with impulse control who took yoga classes during a months-long incarceration at a Washoe County juvenile detention facility shared her feedback as well.
“I happened to visit him one day just after he had finished,” the mother stated. “He told me that he felt so peaceful and relaxed afterwards.
“It has shown my son that he has the capacity to calm himself and slow down his thoughts.”
As COVID-19 vaccinations have increased and restrictions have lessened, Stanton said the demand for Urban Lotus’ services has returned, beyond recent expectations. The project now has 20 teachers, including three recent hires.
“Kids need activities,” he said explaining the demand, “and everyone needs self-care to cope with their nervous system and stress.”
With its roots latched in a river bottom and its flower rising above the surface to bloom, the lotus flower that the project uses as its logo symbolizes rebirth and spiritual enlightenment. Lotus flowers are known for their durability and adaptability as well, mainly because each night, they submerge their blossoms underwater and reemerge the next morning to show off their spectacular flower. They are resistant to pollution and can even purify the water they grow in.
“No Mud No Lotus,” the organization’s Facebook page proclaims, a process Stanton described as “transforming suffering into flourishing.”