· By Emily Cunningham
YOGA FOR ALL: A CONVERSATION WITH THE FOUNDER OF LEGIT.YOGA
This is the first in our three part #TrueBeautyGivesBack series, highlighting some of our favorite founders and giving you a chance to support some of our favorite social enterprises. This week, we sat down with LEGIT.yoga founder Theresa Okokon. Enter code 'LEGITYOGA25' at checkout, and we'll donate 25% of your purchase to LEGIT.yoga's work making yoga accessible to trauma survivors and marginalized populations.
How did LEGITyoga get its start, and what makes your way of doing business unique?
LEGIT.yoga started as nothing more than a dream in my head. I had been working as a social worker with the homeless and low income population for nearly a decade, and practicing yoga for most of that time. So often, the experience of homelessness and being low income coincides with the experience of trauma and on-going mental health issues. As a professional, I was always looking for new information, new research, and new approaches to my work. I went to a training about a new way to approach talk-therapy for people with PTSD, and I thought to myself, “If this were condensed into an hour, it would be a really amazing yoga class.” I started to wonder if that was a thing: treating trauma with yoga. And as it turns out, it is!
I began my 200hour Yoga Teacher Training shortly thereafter, with the specific goal of eventually starting some kind of program where I would fuse yoga and social work together. Later over dinner with friends, I came up with the name “LEGIT.yoga” which stands for Learn. Emote. Grow. Ignite. Transform: because this is what I want people to do when they are coming to classes.
LEGIT.yoga classes are special because they are trauma informed. This means that being in the yoga class is probably going to feel different than what one might expect when they go to a yoga studio. First of all: class happens inside of a homeless shelter, or on site at a housing project. LEGIT.yoga classes are free to the folks who attend, LEGIT.yoga provides the yoga mats and yoga blocks, and you don’t need to wear any fancy yoga clothes to come to class: just wear whatever you’ve got! LEGIT.yoga class are based on three primary foundations: breath (and how it impacts how the mind and body feel), ownership (over your own body, over your experience, over your practice), and choice (to take a pose or not, to have hands on assist or not. Choice is a big one, there are elements of choice in all parts of LEGIT.yoga classes).
The most basic human possession is one’s own body, but a woman who has experienced trauma regularly feels as though her body does not belong to her. Trauma survivors express a feeling that their body has betrayed them, that control of their body has been stolen from them, or that they simply do not feel their body: they are disconnected. When you practice yoga, you gain a sense of control and ownership over your body. You feel more connected to yourself, and to the world around you. You feel powerful, able and capable. But across America and in the Greater Boston area, yoga is seen as a practice that is reserved for the elite. Yoga classes at a studio or a gym are cost-prohibitive, and most low-income neighborhoods do not have easy access to these types of facilities. Many low-income women who are also struggling with their health and weight feel physically intimidated to step foot into a yoga studio. Even if they know the benefits of yoga, most low-income and homeless women are too busy just trying to survive, than to spend time trying to find a yoga class that they can afford to attend. Around Boston there is a smattering of yoga teachers who may occasionally volunteer here or there to teach a community class, but working for free is not sustainable for the teacher. Perhaps most significantly is the fact that: few yoga teachers are also social workers who actually understand the realities of living in a homeless shelter, and many are too intimidated or scared to walk into a housing project. The goal of LEGIT.yoga is to bridge this gap.
How can our readers help/get involved?
There are so many ways that you can help LEGIT.yoga. Here are a few…
- If you're in the Boston area, come out to our donation based yoga class fundraiser December 11th at Pop Allston!
- Like LEGIT.yoga on Facebook, so that you can stay up to date on the latest happenings:www.facebook.com/LEGIT.yoga
- Make a donation to LEGIT.yoga by emailing about their interest to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org (both monetary and in kind donations are welcomed! LEGIT.yoga is currently trying to raise a collection of yoga blocks to be used in class)
- Attend a LEGIT.yoga fundraiser. We have a fundraiser yoga class coming up on December 11th, details will be on the Facebook page!
- Tell the teachers and owners at the yoga studios where you practice about LEGIT.yoga, and encourage that they reach out about ways to collaborate. We would love to partner with area studios that might have students pay an extra $1 for their yoga class, and have that $1 go towards LEGIT.yoga
- Yoga teachers can collaborate with LEGIT.yoga teach fundraiser classes, and donate the proceeds
- Tell your friends! Awareness matters!
Any favorite moments to share?
- A woman at CWU once said that she “found her Mr. Miyagi” during class
- During the pre-savasana body scan, I often prompt the women to give appreciation to each of their body parts. I’ll say something like, “Start with your feet, breathe in and fill yourself with gratitude for your feet, breathe out and tell your feet that you love them.” A woman at Pine St. Inn did this outloud, saying, “I love you feet.” We do this for each body part from feet on up, and eventually every woman was saying it outloud together…”I love you neck.”
- A woman at CWU (which is a shelter for women that are pregnant or parenting) came to a starter class over the summer (before I officially launched weekly classes) and she was pregnant…then about 2 months later she came to the first official class at CWU and practiced class with her baby resting on her mat in front of her.
What's one fun fact about you that we might not know?
I was once on an episode of a reality television show in Ecuador…and I am allergic to apples
What do you love most about your job?
I love walking into a shelter and hearing people say, “the yoga lady is here!” I love the first Mountain Pose in every class…where I watch their heads slowly roll up, the shoulders slowly roll down, the spine come long, the arms reach and fall to the sides, the palms of the hands face forward…and the look on their face that says, “ahhhh, I have arrived. I am here.” I love the moment in savasana when everyone goes still…I love when the class slowly comes up from savasana, how a room full of women who’s minds are constantly telling them that its not safe to relax, will take all the time they want, moving like they are in a jar of honey, and slowly sit up to face forward. I love at the end of class whenever anyone says, “That’s exactly what I needed.” I love how lucky I feel that this is somehow, magically, my job.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Do it! Jump. Leap. Dream. Ask. Stop worrying, stop thinking, and do the thing that you would do if you were not afraid of anything.
What's the next big thing for LEGIT.yoga?
The Kip Tiernan Social Justice Fellowship that funds our program lasts just for one year, so the next big thing is to make sure that LEGIT.yoga gets to exist after that year is up. I will be diligently seeking funding, support and partnerships to keep this dream alive. LEGIT.yoga classes are currently only in women’s programs, so having the funding to expand into men’s programs as well is a huge priority. LEGIT.yoga also wants to eventually offer one-on-one trauma informed yoga sessions to victims of violent crime.