Another Benefit for the Unemployed -- Free Yoga

December 21, 2010 - 6:46 AM

Columbus, Ohio (AP) - The women snuggle into nests of pillows and blankets.

A light breeze, like a mother blowing on a baby's boo-boo, falls from ceiling fans and tickles their backs. The room is dark, silent, until they crawl out of child's pose and chant, "Omm."

This is free yoga for the unemployed: a different kind of jobless benefit where former managers, laid-off limo drivers and others can turn to the grown-up version of nap time to ease the stress of being out of work.

With national unemployment just below 10 percent, $20 yoga classes don't qualify as necessities for many out-of-work people who've pruned luxuries from their budgets. So in a gesture that's part send-good-vibes-to-the-universe and part community outreach, a handful of yoga studios have decided to cut the unemployed a break.

"We didn't want them to have to choose, 'Should I eat today or go take this class?' We wanted to give them the ability to do both," said Zack Lynn, a computer techie by day who teaches a free yoga class for people out of work in Columbus.

The Integral Yoga Institute in New York started offering free weekly classes last year when some students lost their jobs and couldn't afford to pay $17 per course. Now, a dozen or two jobseekers drop in for free sun salutations and other stretches every week.

"It helps to quiet the mind and helps people realize that this is a temporary situation," said Jo Sgammato, the studio's general manager.

Yogis say breathing exercises can reduce the stress of job interviews and post-stretching tea time is good for networking.

"You're not really thinking about other things," said Quinn Johnson, a 42-year-old former limo driver who started attending Integral Yoga's free classes earlier this year. "You're relaxing. You're stretching."

Some students have found work and switched to paid classes. But employment experts and yogis alike are quick to point out that yoga shouldn't get all the credit.

"Yoga's not getting anybody a job," said Wendy Enelow, an executive career consultant in Coleman Falls, Va. "What the yoga studios do -- and I think kudos to them -- is if you physically feel better, your head's going to feel better and you're in a better place to manage your job search."

Practicing yoga is believed to reduce stress and improve concentration. Some studios offer special classes to help veterans work through traumatic experiences and women cope with pregnancies.

Can't make it to the weekly class? The studio in New York -- and others in cities such as Chicago and Berkeley, Calif. -- have given unemployed people discounts on other sessions. At Integral, that means paying $10 per class instead of $17.

Yogis follow a granola-crunching code of honor at the free classes in New York and Columbus. (Asking for proof of unemployment seems like a yoga buzzkill.)

"If somebody comes all the way here and tells us they want to take that free class because they're unemployed, we're going to believe them," Sgammato said.

Back in the dark yoga sanctuary in the Columbus studio, called Yoga on High, Lynn leads a group of unemployed -- or barely employed -- women through relaxing poses.

It's yoga more shabby than chic. Most of the students are dressed in T-shirts and hoodies rather than the hip hippie garb of Lululemon. They rely on the kinds of blankets you might find in car trunks.

Apparel aside, the class resembles its full-priced counterpart. Students bend into silhouettes of the alphabet -- the outline of an A in downward-facing dog, an I as they stretch long, lean, toward the ceiling.

The din from the street gives way to a yawn-inducing state of silence, the kind of silence that quiets the deepest worrier's qualms. A sign reminds fellow yogis passing by, "Quiet Please.... Savasana In Progress!"

Lynn adjusts the students' postures as they ripple through poses. Then he tucks them into forts made of ergonomic pillows for deep relaxation.

"If you are extremely comfortable and want to stay there, that's fine," he says. "But I would prefer that you lie on your back for at least a few minutes."

Bethia Woolf, a 35-year-old who recently started a food-tour company in Columbus, went to her first free class after she lost her job as a rowing coach. She says the class forced her to get out of the house and stay in a routine -- something she wouldn't have been able to afford if she had to shell out $15 per class.

"Even though it has a lot of health and well-being benefits, there's things you feel guilty about spending money on that aren't essentials," Woolf said.