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Indroducing social flexibility through yoga

photo courtesy of Niroga Center

There are thousands of yoga studios all over the Bay Area. They usually cater to people who can pay the $15-20 class fee. But the Nirgoa Institute in Berkeley offers classes to low-income senior citizens, incarcerated youth, homeless shelters and inner city high school students.

Nancy Bailey takes a class offered specifically to seniors. She says yoga is making tangible improvements to her physical well being, “I had recurring pain for two years and was doing physical therapy and nothing worked. So I came here in June and amazingly that pain went away,” she recalls.

The Niroga Institute is the non-profit arm of the Niroga Center. The institute extends yoga class beyond the walls of the studio into Oakland classrooms. Annika Hanson of Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy says yoga’s appeal among students is growing. “When we first started the yoga classes here, I really had maybe two or three consistent students. But at the beginning of this year we had over 30 kids in this room.”

Hanson also says yoga can make school more engaging for students who would otherwise lose interest. “I’ve had students who – I didn’t know this was going on – but who were only coming to school on the days there was yoga and had really taken to the practice, It was the one thing that was kind of stabilizing them.”

Many students at the Oakland Street Academy come from stressful and often violent living situations. This affects students physically, Hanson says, by actually triggering a fight or flight reflex.  “People’s bodies can’t tell the difference between life-threatening stress and danger and everyday stresses," Hanson explains. Yoga breathing techniques can relieve this chronic stress. With the help of yoga, students are able to relax and focus on themselves, which can help reduce violent behavior and encourage them to make better life choices.

Bidyut Boss is the founder of the Nirgoa Institute. He grew up practicing yoga with his father. As an adult, he moved from the Himalaya Mountains to the foothills of Silicon Valley where he worked as a software engineer until the stress got to him. For the past five years, he’s been working to promote yoga and the Niroga Institute.  “What I dream about, what I imagine, is a community where most of us are living and breathing this practice – even as we're engaged in the world, we're practicing at each moment, each step of each breath. Changing our souls as we transform the world around us. Being the change we wish to see in the world.”

That’s exactly where is Niroga is headed. Biduyt Boss is bringing yoga to schools, homeless shelters, halfway homes, and juvenile halls places where he believes change is needed the most.

Audio for this story available after 5pm P.S.T. on February 6, 2012.