Yoga for Rio de Janeiro’s Homeless
Yoga for Rio de Janeiro’s Homeless
Volunteer group offers breakfast and regular yoga classes for the city’s homeless. Project brings participants dignity and balance.
Twelve years ago, a single thermos of coffee and a few loaves of bread, distributed by three people to the homeless in a square in Rio de Janeiro, marked the beginning of Projeto Voar. Over the next few years, more people joined the project, which offers breakfast to the homeless. Today, Voar feeds approximately 300 people at a time. Organizers have since transitioned from giving out meals to those interested to the next step: “Street Yoga” classes.
“The Street Yoga project came about so we could spend more time with the people who were already coming to have breakfast. I wanted to spend more time in the company of our friends living on the streets. Through the practice of yoga we create a relationship where we’re all equal,” says university professor André Andrade Pereira, a mentor with the Voar and Street Yoga initiatives, which take place on the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
Easing the pressures of the streets
Evicted from various places by local residents’ associations and municipal authorities, the group is now able to offer the two projects on a regular basis three times a week, every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, at three different locations around the city. For Mônica Bretanha, a fashion designer and one of Voar’s creators, waking up at 3 am to prepare breakfast has become vital: “It’s not just a material thing, it’s love, too. Together we chant the words health, peace and happiness, so that they’ll become reality in the lives of each participant,” she says.
There are currently more than 14,000 people living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro – that figure tripled from 2013 to January 2017. Many are recent arrivals, due to job loss or being unable to pay rent. This is the case, for example, for Roberto Moreira da Silva, who two and a half years ago found himself out of work and forced to live on the street. For him, practicing yoga is a way to ease pressure and suffering: “It’s renewing. We let go of a lot of bad stuff. The street’s always stressful, whether you live there or not. Yoga came to lift us up,” he notes.
Awareness of one’s own body
For teacher Fernanda Santana, who participates in the project as a volunteer, yoga brings a bit of peace to the homeless: “I think that, for a moment, they know that they exist, that they have a working body and a mind that can travel to better places,” she says. A tool that helps them deal with the adversities encountered on the streets, yoga is practiced on Mondays, always in Flamengo Park, at Rua Dois de Dezembro, with a picture postcard view of Pão de Açúcar in the background. For some of the participants, this is one of the few moments of the day in which they actually feel like citizens: “It won’t help you get off the streets, but it calms the mind. Life out here is hard and we lose our cool easily,” says Marcelo Pereira, who has lived on the streets for 13 years, since he was nine years old. Having learned to read from traffic signs because he never attended a school, he says that prejudice is worse than hunger: “Hunger punishes, but it’s society’s prejudice that hurts the most.” Doing physical exercise, in this sense, helps participants to regain their dignity.
Little to those “from the inside”, a whole lot to those “from the streets”
Of the homeless men and women who participate in the project that offers breakfast, not everyone, however, stays on for the yoga class after. A group of about 10 homeless individuals attend the class. Among those who stay, however, some keep up with their practice regularly, going to classes two or even three times a week, at different locations: “I participate on Mondays and Wednesdays. I don’t come just for the food, no. I leave here in peace. Your head leaves differently,” says Elson da Silva, 62, living on the streets for five years, after being fired from his job at a supermarket.
An hour and a half of class, after a hearty breakfast, awakens body and mind. A twist here, a stretch there, meditation, relaxation at the end and lunch form the group’s activities. What might seem like very little to those who are “inside” (homeless slang in Brazil for those who have a home), can save the day of those who not only struggle daily to survive, but also to be recognized as human beings: “I know that today I’ll have a better afternoon and I hope see to something positive, besides being sure that now is better than before,” concludes Roberto Moreira da Silva in the group’s conversation circle.