MONTREAL (The Gazette) – When yoga instructor Anne Marie Delaney entered the basement of an old greystone in Shaughnessy Village a few weeks ago, her eager students were waiting patiently beside their mats.
But the small group of students are not your traditional yoga disciples. They are mostly elderly men who live at Nazareth House, a shelter and residence for men who have struggled with homelessness, addictions or mental illness.
Most Wednesdays, Delaney takes time out of her busy schedule to take the men through a 30-minute yoga class that she hopes will empower them physically and emotionally. With soothing music playing in the background, she uses breathing techniques, stretching and relaxation exercises to help them strengthen their mind, body and spirit.
“It (yoga) can be life changing if you can take it off your mat and into your life with you,” said Delaney, who teaches the class on a volunteer basis to men aged 52 to 77.
“It is an honour to guide them through a yoga class. They just drink it up. You see it when they are sitting there meditating.” Delaney said she doesn’t expect the yoga class to radically change their lives, but she hopes it gives them tools to help manage their stress and “find their inner strength.”
John, who has been at Nazareth House for about a year, said he didn’t realize how much of a workout yoga is. “It stretches out my muscles and relaxes you.” he said. “I thought yoga was just for women, but it is good for men too.”
Robert Cuttle had attended yoga classes at his church before he fell on hard times and said it has been great to get back at it.
“I feel very relaxed after the class and my body is very content.” He also said he and the other men are grateful that Delaney makes time for them each week. “She is a special person,” he said.
Doris Mercier, the house manager at Nazareth House, said she knew she would have to pull a few tricks out of her hat to persuade the men to participate in a yoga class.
“I told them we were starting a yoga class; that a lady was coming who was a volunteer and that we gotta be there,” Mercier recalled.
Some of the men balked at the idea, saying yoga was for “women or something religious.”
Mercier ignored their protests and gently ushered the men into a room in the basement where the class was being held. For the first few classes, Mercier participated until the men felt comfortable taking the class without her.
“They were nervous at first; it is hard to get them to change or do something new,” she said.
Within a few months, some of the men began turning up for the class on their own. During a class just before Christmas, Mercier watched on proudly as Delaney took the men through a series of breathing exercises and stretches. “They really like her and they trust her,” Mercier said. Sheila Woodhouse, the director of Nazareth House, took up yoga last January and became a huge advocate. After noticing that yoga increased her flexibility, improved her sleep and helped reduce stress, she wondered whether it would help the men of Nazareth House.
After doing some research on the Internet, Woodhouse discovered that organizations around North America have been offering yoga to homeless populations and other people with mental illness for several years. “It helps them with their focus, concentration, breathing and relaxing,” she said.
Woodhouse said she hoped the yoga class would give the men “a little more identification with their bodies.”
“It is working out well,” she said of the small class. “The fact that they are there every week speaks volumes. That they would sit together in a quiet room with music and learn to control their breathing. It is a major step.”
Woodhouse has been was so impressed with Delaney’s rapport with the men that she has hired her to give the men a chair message following the yoga class.
“Men like this, who have lived on the street and don’t have family, haven’t been touched for years,” she said.