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How Project Yoga Richmond opened up more opportunities for people to practice mindfulness after COVID-19

Got stress?  You’re not alone.  Over the last year, managing stress and overall mental health has been, well, on the minds of many people throughout the pandemic.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every five Americans has reported struggling with mental or behavioral health issues associated with the pandemic, especially among 18–29-year-olds and minority communities.

Could meditation and yoga help?  Researchers at Columbia University’s Department of Psychology and New York State Psychiatric Institute launched a study amid the COVID-19 climate to find out.

On the local front, enter in Project Yoga Richmond or PYR.  Founded in 2010 after the death of a cherished teacher, its mission is simple.

“PYR provides affordable and inclusive access to yoga and mindfulness programs to individuals and groups to help strengthen their physical, emotional and all of the aspects of their being and spiritual health,” said Nitika Achalam, executive director of PYR.

How it works

Nitika Aschalam

One of the biggest barriers to people’s access to yoga is its cost.  Couple that with the fact that the landscape within the yoga industry has not always been welcoming to all types of people.  PYR has set out to address both of those hurdles.  It is targeting a diverse community of all socio-economic levels.  And it welcomes those people with physical challenges, like limited mobility or visual impairments and those who are nonverbal.  

PYR is broken down into a practice space, with nonprofit centers and outreach programs led by volunteers, ambassadors and providers of yoga experiences. The goal is to help every person within the community find their stasis through yoga and mindfulness practices.

“Volunteers are the backbone of the PYR,” said Achalam. “We couldn’t do this work if it weren’t for the really generous and kind people who are donating their time to run the physical studio and the virtual studio. They make sure that folks who are entering the space, whether it’s physical or virtual, feel welcome.”

Adapting through COVID-19

Even before the pandemic, PYR had a pay-what-you-can model to make yoga affordable and accessible. In light of COVID-19, it had to get creative while staying true to its mission while keeping everyone safe. Thankfully, yoga can be done just about anywhere. More outside events were created around Richmond and the popularity of virtual space slowly gained momentum.

Some of the events, like Saturday Salutations at The Diamond, expanded from being summer only to March through October.  An PYR has inhabited the Residence Inn at Marriott on Glenside and the Quirk Hotel for outside experiences.

The virtual option was developed for people who didn’t feel comfortable leaving their home or couldn’t. Currently, there are weekly Zoom studio classes available on its website.  PYR also created a subscription service through Patreon, where people have entry into a generous on-demand video library with a wide range of options to choose from.

Community partners

The very first community partner, a school, started 10 years ago, and over the years more schools have joined as well as partnerships with organizations that focus on recovery, senior citizens and special needs.  Today, PYR teams up with trauma-informed groups and even goes into jails to teach classes.

“We have a recent partnership with FreeHorse Arts and through them we’ve worked through the Autism Society and taught yoga for adults with autism, an absolutely fun group,” said Aschalam. “Because it was virtual, we get to see all these beautiful faces on the screen, and everyone is participating in the practice with so much vibrancy. Absolutely lovely to see that experience.”

Senior outreach program

Only a portion of PYR’s community partners have been able to tune in virtually since certain programs are dependent on schools being open in person or have technological issues not easily resolved. Then there are those who bristle at the thought of one more Zoom call for the day (we hear you!).

Due to COVID-19, there has been an increase in engagement through partnerships with organizations as a service to employees.  PYR can provide classes that not only relieve stress but focus on team building, stress reduction and physical exercise.

Future Happenings

Outdoor activities will be the main theme for PYR throughout the spring, summer and fall months. More classes will be added at The Diamond this year along with the Om Run Yoga for kids. You also will find PYR at Dominion Energy Riverrock, then at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts later in the summer and at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in its award-winning space.

“COVID-19 is not going to keep us down,” said Achalam.

To learn more about Project Yoga Richmond, visit its website, or follow it on Facebook and Instagram.  You can also donate directly to the organization here.

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