The Inner Journey Home: How Yoga And Mindfulness Is Transforming The Lives Of SF’s Homeless Youth
I had the amazing opportunity to talk to Forest Fein, the Curriculum Director + Lead Instructor for the Youth Mindfulness programs at Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and Larkin Street Youth Services.
Larkin Street provides youth between the ages of 12 and 24 with the help they need to rebuild their lives. Each year, more than 3,000 youth walk through their doors seeking help. Larkin Street gives them a place where they can feel safe; rebuild their sense of self-respect, trust, and hope; learn school, life and job skills; and find the confidence to build a future.
How Mindfulness is Changing the Lives of Youth in San Francisco
While the exact date of meditation’s origin is unknown, archaeologists and scholars seem to agree that it’s been around for about 5,000 years. It’s only been more recently, though, that the practice of meditation and mindfulness is increasingly finding its way into people’s everyday lives. This could be thanks to more and more research findings that have been released in recent years that show the many benefits of meditation, including a recent 8-week study by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, which found that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter, can increase one’s well-being and quality of life. And increasing the quality of life for at-risk homeless youth in San Francisco is exactly what Larkin Street Youth Services (http://larkinstreetyouth.org) is accomplishing with a program that makes mindfulness and yoga accessible to homeless youth who may not otherwise be able to practice due to financial, logistical or other barriers to access.
Developed and led by instructor Forest Fein, MA, the Inner Journey Home programs are mindfulness-based, trauma-informed programs that help at-risk and homeless youth develop resiliency, empowerment, wise action and peace in their lives.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, homeless youth have higher rates of mood disorders, suicide attempts, conduct disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. “These youth have not had the parenting, support and guidance needed to thrive and, as a result, are often dealing with high levels of stress, anxiety, depression and trauma that negatively affects them on all levels: mentally, emotionally and physically,” Fein said.
“The yoga and mindfulness teachings and practices that are taught throughout the program help youth gain insight into unconscious, unhelpful patterns of thinking, cultivate positive thoughts and emotions, and reduce unhealthy and destructive behavior,” he added. “They develop the capacity to witness and respond with awareness to situations and circumstances that arise, rather than react blindly to them. This, in turn, supports youth in developing a greater capacity to manage emotions and curb impulsive and addictive tendencies while building healthy habits.”
Through a regular twice-a-week practice over six months, students develop a yoga practice that helps them to develop self-regulation and reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and trauma and cultivate greater resiliency, empowerment, balance, connectedness and inner peace. “Together, yoga and mindfulness teachings and practices provide tools that promote self-awareness, self-control, non-reactivity, self-acceptance and self-confidence. Yoga, especially with this population, is not just about ‘joining’ mind, body, and spirit, but about joining or creating that safe and supportive community, so essential to well-being and recovery of homeless youth,” Fein said.
These innovative programs are a partnership between Larkin Street Youth Services and the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
The programs launched in 2013 with a 7-week/14-class, 90 minute intensive mindfulness program, and due to its success and increased demand, additional 7-week programs have been offered, as well as new programs, including 6-month mindfulness and yoga programs, which is part of the Larkin Street Youth Services’ College and Career Readiness Learning Centers and weekly drop-in mindfulness and yoga classes at various Larkin Street locations throughout San Francisco.
These programs were designed and developed specifically for this population by Fein, and so far an estimated 130 students have participated in the 7-week and 6-month programs in addition to an estimated 400+ students in the drop-in classes.
Here’s what some of the youth had to say about the program:
"Meditation has changed me as a person and my interactions with other people and my view of the world. It’s like I had two different images in my head of who I was then and who I am now.”
“I was going through a lot of struggles and I totally lost my inner peace and I lost my way and I was literally hitting rock bottom. Ever since meditation started, I’ve never felt more calm and at peace. Even when things are going bad I still have peace and hope and know that things are going to get better. And I never was like that. When things got bad, that’s it, that was the end.”
“I’ve been able to have self-love which is something I have never in my whole life been able to do - to be able to say to myself may you be calm, may you be peaceful and really appreciate myself…and ever since we started the loving kindness practice, it’s made me see the light within myself and my potential and that is something I really appreciate a lot.”
“And probably one of the biggest lessons I feel was probably the last class where you were discussing how we always have these thoughts coming into our mind but we don’t have to follow that. We can just label that thought as just a thought - that’s just a failure thought or that’s just an insecure thought and just letting it go and not being forced to follow that thought wherever it goes. Like on friday right after that class I probably caught myself like 200 hundred times, like, ‘oh that’s just a negative thought, I am going to let go of that right now.’ And Friday was such a good day, and Saturday was pretty good and today is pretty good, too, so I am hoping that it keeps going.”
Let’s Get Street Smart, an independent film series, looking at innovative solutions to the homelessness crisis in San Francisco featured a video on the Mindfulness Program at Larkin Street Youth Services.
What Can You Do To Help?
When asked what others can do to support this program, Fein said their “wish list” includes donating funds, yoga equipment, yoga clothes, smartphones or tablets for mindfulness and yoga apps + videos that can support students practice in-between class, scholarship fund for promising students who want to go on to do yoga and meditation retreats or trainings outside of the classes; healthy non-perishable snack foods and retreat space.
If you’re interested in learning more about the program or donating, contact Fein at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Larkin Street Youth Services, please visit