A New Program Is Using Yoga to Enhance Social Work

LEGIT.yoga will teach weekly yoga classes in area women's shelters.

Teresa Okokon

Teresa Okokon in action. Photo provided to bostonmagazine.com

Rosie’s Place, the first women’s shelter in the United States, recently awarded Roslindale social worker Theresa Okokon the Kip Tiernan Social Justice Fellowship—a $40,000 grant. Through the grant, Okokon created LEGIT.yoga, a new program that will bring yoga classes to local shelters.

Legit will use a method called trauma-sensitive yoga, which uses the practice to help people deal with traumatic stress.

“There’s all kinds of programs that teach you how to get a job. There’s all kinds of programs that will maybe support you in that job, but there’s not a lot besides one-on-one individual therapy that gets you to deal with your trauma,” Okokon says. 

Starting in September, Okokon, who has been a social worker since 2005 and a yogi since 2007, will teach free, weekly classes at four shelters—Rosie’s Place, Crittenton Women’s Union’s Hastings House, Pine Street Inn, and the Woods-Mullen Shelter—and at the Boston Public Health Commission’s MOM’s Project, a substance abuse recovery program.

“I’m coming to you,” Okokon says. “I am bringing the mats, I am bringing everything you need, all you need is to come into the room. Yoga makes you hit the pause button. It makes you take that pause so that you can think a little bit longer about what it is that you’re feeling and how you’re going to react to that feeling.”

While using yoga for therapy is not new, introducing it in a social work setting—and to people who sometimes don’t know where they’ll spend the next night—can be a tough sell. In fact, Rosie’s Place has received several yoga-related applications for the Kip Tiernan Fellowship, says Sandy Mariano, director of programs and planning for the organization. But the program has never funded any yoga applications prior to Okokon’s.

But LEGIT.yoga caught the shelter’s attention, in part because of Okokon’s experience working with homeless women through her social work. “The only reason I became a yoga teacher is so that I could develop this program,” she says.

While the fellowship with Rosie’s Place lasts one year, Okokon says she intends to continue and expand the program. She’s seeking funding to add a men’s shelter component, and part of the current grant will fund training for one LEGIT.yoga student to become a yoga teacher.

“It would be my dream if eventually there’s a team of teachers that taught for LEGIT.yoga all over the Greater Boston area,” she says.

LEGIT.yoga will host a kickoff event Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. at Old Oak Dojo in Jamaica Plain.