Dr. Petering and the MyPath Program are part of an ongoing partnership supported by SPY’s 4-year Innovations contract with LA County’s Department of Mental Health.
“You need to try mindfulness and Yoga. It’s hard to live in the streets when you are homeless, people can’t live like that. The pain is too much, it’s too stressful and some people can’t handle it, so they take their own life. Let’s try these mindfulness techniques and yoga poses and see how much it will change, and things will come to you.” -MyPath Program Participant
These are the words of a homeless youth participating in Safe Place for Youth’s (SPY) MyPath Program, a mindfulness and yoga peer-ambassador intervention program designed to reduce violence among homeless youth. Violence is a complex phenomenon that impacts adolescents and young adults across America. It occurs in multiple ways including interpersonal violence, intimate partner violence, gang, and gun violence. Homeless youth experience all types of violence at higher rates than housed youth. This is the result of many contributing factors including childhood experiences of trauma, subsistence survival strategies, and exposure to perpetrators while living on the streets. The consequences of violence are severe. In addition to injury and/or death, violence can cause non-physical ailments such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and externalizing behavior (delinquency and aggression), arrest, and interruption of receiving supportive services.
Violence is a social behavior. It happens between two people. If your friends experience violence, you are more likely to experience violence. Violence is closely related to difficulties in regulating emotions. Evidence suggests that mindfulness may be particularly effective in improving emotion regulation. Yoga has been characterized as “mindfulness in motion.” However, yoga and mindfulness interventions remain particularly under-utilized for persons experiencing homelessness. Given these facts, myself and my colleagues asked, “How can we make mindfulness and yoga contagious amongst young people experiencing homelessness?”
Before obtaining my PhD, I taught hundreds of yoga classes in community settings. I’ve taught adults living on skid row; mothers and their children living in supportive housing programs; and youth and young adults at drop-in centers, including My Friend’s Place and SPY. After hundreds of classes, I learned many things that made me a better community-based yoga teacher. Mostly, I learned how to reduce barriers. As a teacher I always come in my street clothes (aka jeans and a tee). I almost never use yoga mats and primarily teach standing or poses that use a chair. I always include breath work and I rarely have a class that goes longer than thirty minutes. However, the biggest and most persistent challenge I faced was finding folks to attend the classes in the first place. In community-based yoga, if you build it, they will not come. After years of offering yoga classes to individuals who had/were experiencing homelessness, finally, something clicked. The missing component of community-based yoga was community empowerment and education. That is why we created MyPath.
MyPath is unique because it harnesses a community’s strengths and strategically introduces mindfulness and yoga as a tool for regulating emotions and reducing inclinations towards violence through Peer Ambassadors. Our Peer Ambassadors were incentivized to continue to their practice during an open class at SPY and also to encourage their friends and acquaintances to practice with them as well. As the weeks progressed, MyPath Ambassadors took more responsibility in guiding the class structure and took opportunities to teach specific poses of breathing exercises to their peers. At the end of the eight-week MyPath program, there was an 85% increase in the number of SPY youth who practiced regular mindfulness and yoga. The MyPath peer-based model is an ideal approach as it leverages the relationships that have the most influence of behavior for young people (i.e. their friends), while gaining access to traditionally hard to reach population and promoting community empowerment. Community-empowered yoga, and programs like MyPath at SPY, have the ability to create a new normal as we continue to invite more people and communities to the table. Reducing violence in the lives of homeless youth is imperative as it contributes to a young person’s ability to safely and successfully exit homelessness and lead a long safe life in society.
If you are interested in learning more about SPY’s work to reduce homelessness amongst youth in the community, consider scheduling a tour of our facility in Venice and learning more about our housing programs, case management, pregnant and parenting support, health and wellness care, education and employment services, community garden program, and of course MyPath! Please email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or visit our website www.safeplaceforyouth.org to connect, subscribe to our mailing list, and/or make a donation.