street yoga: serving yourself with yoga (interview with mark lilly)

Mark Lilly, Street Yoga founder, looking rather Neil Young-esque. (image via streetyoga.org)

Street Yoga founder Mark Lilly was inspired not only by his yoga practice and the changes he saw within himself, but by a line from a Neil Young song: “We were giving, that’s how we kept what we gave away.” To keep what yoga had given him, Mark said he had to give it away as fast and as much as possible – and he chose youth and others struggling with homelessness, poverty, abuse, addiction, trauma and behavioral challenges to be the recipients of his generosity.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Street Yoga has a mission to “give youth and their caregivers the tools to overcome early life trauma, through the sharing of life-building mindfulness and wellness practices grounded in the ancient healing principles of yoga.” With humble beginnings as a grassroots organization run by volunteers, Street Yoga has grown into a full-fledged non-profit with a staff, board, solid infrastructure and ambitious development plan.

In addition to offering services to at-risk youth in the Portland area, Street Yoga offers 16-hour teacher training courses all over North America. These trainings teach “compact, portable mindfulness practices” and are developed for yoga teachers, social workers and school teachers (although no previous yoga teaching experience is necessary).

In 2011, more than 500 people have been trained to teach yoga to youth in social service environments. The next training will happen in Toronto on December 9 – 11. See the Street Yoga schedule for 2012 trainings.

Mark Lilly answered a few questions about Street Yoga, the teacher training, and yoga as activism and community service.

It’s been almost 10 years since you started Street Yoga. Did you have any idea that the project would expand into what it’s become today?

Never had any idea it would be anything more than me doing something I needed to do. When I started, I was doing it by myself; that worked for a few months, but then I realized I was in to something deeper than I had knowledge about, so I pulled back, put the first classes on hold, and spent a lot of time in study with various mentors.

I also found a core group of folks to share this with, and together we were able to make a sustainable commitment to Outside In, [a social service agency for youth and] the site of our first classes. We were able to commit to covering every Sunday, for months and now years in a row. From there, one lady called to ask, maybe in response to a newspaper article about our work, if we could offer a class at her shelter for young women living in state custody – that was one or two years after our first class at Outside In. We grew from there, and at various inflection points, we accelerated a lot and grew faster than we had. Now we’re a lot of people, doing a lot of good. It’s very gratifying.

What exactly happens in a Street Yoga training? What do participants leave with and take back to their communities?

We work on a number of important facets of this work of yoga service:

1) We learn about ourselves, our motivations, our personal relationship with you, our strengths, our voice, our needs, our inspiration and such. We look at shadows and find out why we want to serve, which audiences are best for each of us, and how ready we are to begin.

2) We learn ways to prepare for classes with very diverse populations of people in low-access (to yoga) communities. We look at needs, trauma, asana, breathing, program development and more.

3) We learn about the broader conditions that make homelessness so common, such as abuse, history of involvement with foster care, incarceration and the like.

After the training, people have concrete skills and way more self-knowledge, about if, how and when to be of service with yoga.

We emphasize “serving yourself with yoga” so that we each grow more grounded and checked in, and so we can build abundance to share with others.

How can hatha yoga be a form of activism and community service?

Yoga offers people the chance to become more honest with themselves than ever before, and in this journey inward, I have found that most of us find greater compassion, power and humility. That then becomes the core of our actions, and good things come from that.

I understand that you’re one of the founding members of the Yoga Service Council. How did you get involved with that? What do you think the YSC can offer the greater yoga community?

Two of us from Street Yoga were teaching at the Being Yoga conference in the fall of 2008, and the Omega Institute folks offered us a week of room/board for any group of yoga service folks (though we didn’t have that term at the time) that I wanted to call together. So I invited 20 people to the First Annual Summit of Yoga, Mindfulness and Service in May 2009. At that gathering, we formed ourselves into the Yoga Service Council. It has morphed some, and grown larger. Under the guidance of Jenn Cohen of Little Flower Yoga, we’re preparing for our first conference in May 2012 at Omega. We plan on building our best practices, supporting each other’s work, and providing a common community for research as well as support to those interesting in starting out in the field.

Street Yoga Teacher Training: Toronto
December 9 – 11, 2011
Yoga Sanctuary
95 Danforth Avenue, Suite 301
Register here

  1. Thank you for sharing this interview. I work with homeless youth in Toronto and have often wanted to do the street yoga training. Hopefully over the next year or two I will be able to afford it. I think bringing yoga to homeless youth is absolutely amazing. Thank you both.

    • you’re welcome! i’m glad it inspired you. did you know that Street Yoga has scholarships for those who need them? check it out: http://streetyoga.org/training/scholarship-policy

    • Hi Lexie We are so happy to share this work with motivated individuals like you 🙂 Roseanne provided the link to our scholarship policy, however for 2011 we have awarded all of our available funds. Please join our mailing list to keep in touch, and we will be returnging to Toronto in 2012 for sure!

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