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OmTown Yogis and a plan for healing Milwaukee

“Namaste” in Hinduism means “I bow to the divine in you.” The respectful greeting has become part of the local vernacular with the rise of yoga’s popularity in the city. It also embodies the core belief of OmTown Yogis in equality for everyone, making Milwaukee stronger one relationship at a time.

OmTown Yogis held its Yoga @ the Museum event in Windhover Hall, beneath the Calatrava wings at the Milwaukee Art Museum on June 4. The once a month event is much more than a gathering of fitness enthusiasts using the discipline from India to stay in shape. It is part of a transformative process for both individuals and the Milwaukee community.

“We’re working from a principle that yoga is a potent tool to address the issues around social divides, because it has the power to awaken a sense of community within practitioners,” said Claire Stillman, director of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “The secret sauce of yoga is its power to connect the mind, body, soul, and community. It can magnify our instincts of caring and connectedness.”

The volunteer organization was founded in 2009 by Stillman, with the purpose of doing social good by linking people through the practice of yoga. OmTown Yogis has begun the transformation from a holding space for the yoga community to being actively and intentionally inviting the entire community.

“Our purpose has always been to bring people together. But now we are getting mission specific for being inclusive about all of Milwaukee,” added Stillman. “We are trying to go from about a one percent attendance level with people of color at our events to a fifteen percent level within this first year of our program.”

OmTown Yogis has been rolling out strategies it developed to address the problems it sees in the segregated nature of Milwaukee. By creating access to yoga and its community-awakening powers, the organization is bringing effective yoga instruction to underserved areas. Additionally, OmTown Yogis is developing teachers who are relatable to their neighborhood, bringing diversity to the instruction itself

Angela Smith is a recipient of the teacher training program called Opening the Doors. Her experience with yoga at Walnut Way led her to the certification scholarship from OmTown Yogis.

“There has been this upsurge of yoga enthusiasts in the world and they look like me,” said Smith, who is a plus-sized African American woman. “And I want to have the opportunity to share that with other people in the city of Milwaukee. I don’t know any other African American yoga teachers except through the few at Walnut Way. So I will be that inspiration for other people out there to say hey, I can teach yoga too.”

The increased popularity of yoga is producing new teachers, but the trend has not offered many of color. Minority communities in Milwaukee often lack the networking opportunities and access to information that would help develop these groups, or join in established ones. The mission of OmTown Yogis fits into this need, to make yoga inclusive and accessible to the public.

“The people who I teach yoga to are mostly African American in areas where there is no such thing as wellness centers or yoga studios,” added Smith. “I teach a class that is very nurturing, and nourishing, and welcoming. Working with African Americans, there is that element of trauma. I have to reach someone without hurting them, in the spaces that they are in.”

OmTown Yogis is poised to bring people together and design shared experiences on which personal relationships can develop, through its Welcoming Spaces program launching in January. The effort is designed to spark local business solidarity to proclaim they are welcoming.

“We’ve supported local yoga teachers to work with people suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease‎, alcoholism, cancer, cultural isolation, homelessness, incarceration, and severely underfunded school settings.” said Stillman. “One of the primary issues here is wasted opportunities. If we were a healthier city, and not so separated, segregated, and disconnected from each other, there weren’t so many people that are suffering. The whole of us could be better, we could be stronger.”

According to Entrepreneur Magazine, Milwaukee is rated 5th in the top ten best cities for starting a yoga studio, which illustrates its popularity. Where OmTown Yogis has seen traction to launch its new initiatives comes from facilitating greater coherence among yoga practitioners. Instead of having people scattered and practicing at their homes, gyms, studios, events like the Art Museum gathering provides a space for them to actually come together, which has built a community spirit. Not everyone who attends goes beyond the fitness craze of what it offers. But Stillman said a lot of people are going deeper and trying to take the beliefs they build on the mat, and turn it into community service. She wants to bring people together who may never have had a reason to be together.

“Yoga is a lifestyle. No one should ever feel that they can’t be involved in a yoga studio because they don’t look like everyone else. People should be met where they are, equally,” said Smith. “I appreciate that OmTown Yogis is trying to create an environment in this city that is welcoming and inclusivity for all people.”

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