Once a week, Caitlin McWilliams arrives at the Helena YWCA to practice yoga with the residents. She enters into their great room, a deep, wide space complete with with hardwood floors, large windows, tall ceilings. The elevator opens and closes every so often. Small children trickle through, cunning and curious. Women greet each other and come in and out as this is the common area. Just before class begins, the giant area rug is carefully rolled up and set aside. Yoga mats take its place, spread around in a circle, like rays of sun and there’s a similar warmth, a cultivated softening.

The YWCA is an organization fully devoted to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. Residents are there, striving to get their lives back on track, reclaiming their spirits and healing in a safe and nurturing environment. So, when the Lotus Foundation began offering classes to local nonprofits in order to further such causes, it seemed like a great fit and, for the past few months, that has certainly been the case.

Each week, Caitlin guides the residents through a series of movements and assists them in focusing their attention on their bodies in positive ways. This is just one piece of what makes up a daily routine of healing and recovery work. In many ways, as Erin McMahon explains, it’s important to “get the heart pumping and feel strengthening in a positive way that is not scary.” Most of the women who are part of the YWCA program have developed strong associations between physical exertion and fear. Their bodies may be convinced that typical sensations in the body like sweating, increased heart and breath rate are strong signals of danger and fight/flight mode can kick into full swing. The hope is that, in creating a safe place to explore these sensations, they will help develop faith and reliability within their own bodies that, ultimately, will become a part of their moment to moment lived experience.

Caitlin has incredibly deep respect for the women of the YWCA. Having navigated her own personal trauma over the years, she is willing and able to instruct from a place of non-judgement and true compassion. She’s also incredibly crafty in terms of creating a class that is a delightful and accessible balance of focused and therapeutic work interwoven with laughter and play. Her humor and authenticity help to dispel the myth that yoga is just for an elite group of perfect women who can twist and contort their bodies into all sorts of crazy shapes. It’s not. It’s a practice that aims to, especially in this case, foster strong community connections and create space and safety in the body (and have some fun while doing it).

Caitlin and Erin are both extremely honored to be working with such a strong, courageous group of women and are quick to give them the ultimate credit when it comes to showing up and being true and committed to doing this yoga business which must’ve seemed very strange and unfamiliar in the beginning. In Caitlin’s words, “…honestly, it’s an incredible group of women who bring so much every week – a willingness to do this new stuff with such playfulness and laughter in the process.”

Erin McMahon, who helps women recovering from various addictions, trauma, and mental health obstacles, helped to bring the weekly classes in house through this partnership. She practices with the group each week. Her presence and dedication to the class demonstrates her belief in the benefits of yoga and also sends a strong message that she is in this with the residents. During the class, everyone is practicing in their own private experience, together. Everyone is welcome and able to benefit. Erin has noticed an obvious shift each week. “There’s a real noticeable difference between the mood and energy of everyone before class and after. There’s just a general calm and openness that results,” she explains.

“It’s been a phenomenal experience for us here. We are just so grateful to have the opportunity to work with Caitlin and The Lotus Foundation,” says Erin. “The fact that Caitlin is able to come here to teach, rather than having to figure out the logistics of transporting residents is huge. The women feel safe and at home here. They’re able to relax a bit more and let their guard down- much more than if we had to go out into the community, the fear factor would be a lot higher in that case.”

Since 2015, The Lotus Foundation has offered scholarships and financial assistance to Veterans, Domestic Violence and Cancer survivors in a safe and qualified environment. In order to extend the healing and support even further, The Lotus Foundation is branching out into the community by bringing classes on site to those businesses and organizations who could greatly benefit from mindful movement, positive strengthening, and encouraging community.

So far, The Lotus Foundation has partnered with the YWCA and The Friendship Center. And, as support for the foundation continues to grow, additional services and partnerships will be realized, more connections made, and more healing made possible.

-Claire Larson (The Lotus Yoga Staff and The Lotus Writer)

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