Chicago group answers street violence with yoga

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CHICAGO (AP) - With their brightly colored mats spread along a sidewalk, Tameka Lawson’s yoga students try to follow her instructions: concentrate on their breathing and focus on the beauty of their surroundings.

But this is Englewood, one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, where streets are dotted with boarded-up houses and overgrown lots, and residents are as familiar with the crackle of gunfire as the chime of an ice cream truck. So while the students stretch their arms to the sky, a man the size of a refrigerator stands guard over the class.

It seems odd, all these slow movements, deep breathing and talk about being centered in a neighborhood ruled by drug-dealing gangs. It’s simply the latest attempt to curb violence in a city where the number of homicides and guns seized leads the nation. The hope is that yoga’s meditative focus will help cooler heads prevail the next time violence or vengeance looms.

The students “live in an environment where everything’s rushed, everything’s pressured. So if you breathe through certain things, you are able to see clearer. You really are,” said Lawson, executive director of a nonprofit group called I Grow Chicago. “Then they can act rather than react.”

The idea has even caught the attention of police. At least one officer has made Lawson’s class part of an anti-violence program for at-risk youths.

With yoga training, “when they get in a tense situation, they can breathe and relax and make the right decision instead of jumping out at someone and hitting them,” officer Daliah Goree said.

Students attest to the calming effect yoga has in an urban landscape of shifting rivalries and constant suspicion.

“I had a lot on my mind, and 10, 15 minutes (of yoga) eased my mind a whole lot,” said Karl Mables, 25, after taking the class for the first time.

Lawson taught yoga at area schools for three years before bringing it to this street earlier in the year. She knew gangs might pose a threat. So before the sessions began, the man standing guard, Andres Brown, approached gang members who live nearby to assure them that the group posed no threat and sought their OK.

As Lawson’s students take their places on the mats, neighbors watch from a nearby porch. She leads the class through a series of moves, asking them to reach as high as they can and bend slowly until they touch the ground. They’re supposed to breathe in as they reach up and exhale on their way down.

The students go through similar moves while sitting, kneeling and lying down and sometimes put their hands together as if in prayer.

“Look at the sky, look at the beauty of nature and breathe in,” she tells them in a soothing voice. When they bow, she adds, they’re “bowing to the beauty of your Englewood community.”

The group does what she says, quietly, though some of the children get antsy and start to make moves that are a lot quicker and seemingly intended to get a laugh.

But when 32-year-old Daisy Flowers warns, “You ain’t getting no candy,” the hands of her 6-year-old niece and those of her young friends are suddenly back together in the prayer position.

Not surprisingly, just a few of her students are men or teenage boys.

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