Mind and Body

Finding a center of balance in a rapidly changing world

Shri Yoga finds a new home, at the same time it moves to online classes in a time of pandemic

Image courtesy of Shri Yoga website

Alison Bologna, executive director of Shri Yoga, surrounded by schoolchildren.

Image courtesy of Shri Yoga website

Lithograph of the Conant Thread Factory complex, with the new headquarters of Shri Yoga circled in red.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/30/20
Shri Yoga founder and executive director Alison Bologna shares how the demands of moving from in-person to virtual yoga classes have provided new insights into the delivery of outreach yoga and the nonprofit prepares to move into its new location in Pawtucket.
Who will launch the first yoga classes for stressed out journalists? How can the new models of delivery of virtual online yoga classes serve as a model for future educational endeavors at the community level? What kinds of new collaborations can be created with primary care providers around yoga classes as part of stress reduction? Can the Shri Yoga model of training adaptive yoga teachers be expanded?
During a time when so much of our lives are being upended by the coronavirus pandemic, what kinds of online social interactions can enhance our connectedness in a time of physical distancing and social isolation? What books, for instance, could be read aloud by groups online, as an exercise of communication and discussion, as a kind of virtual book club? Two of the most centering activities in my own life have always been cooking and gardening. Gardening, because you can get your hands deep into the soil without having to focus on words, allowing your mind to travel, and cooking, because it creates a kind of immediate gratification in preparing something that can be eaten and shared with family and friends.

PAWTUCKET – The new watchword of Shri Yoga, which is dedicated to light and prosperity, may soon become “expect the unexpected,” striking a pose of flexibility and nimbleness, with the ability to pivot with the best of entrepreneurs in Rhode Island.

On Thursday, Jan. 30, the nonprofit urban outreach yoga studio had closed on buying its new location at 390 Pine St., an historic, two-story, L-shaped brick building constructed between 1880 and 1882, culminating a two-year effort fund-raising effort to secure a new home.

The building had been part of the former Conant Thread Co., once the largest textile mill complex in the Blackstone Valley that had served as Pawtucket’s largest employer for decades.

On Sunday, Feb. 23, Shri Yoga had hosted a tour of the building for its staff and teachers and supporters, displaying the architectural plans on the walls, a vision of positive change and transformation.

Then the world changed dramatically, with the onset of the coronavirus, which forced Shri Yoga to suspend its in-person yoga classes on Friday, March 13, at its current Pawtucket location.

As a result, the nonprofit made the decision to move its classes to virtual, online  offerings, setting up live remote classes with its numerous community agency partners.

Thankfully, Shri Yoga had decided to move all its waivers and registration forms to a digital format in February, facilitating the move to a virtual platform for classes, according to Alison Bologna, the founder, executive director and outreach instructor for the nonprofit group. [Bologna is also a TV news anchor at NBC 10 News, WJAR.]

In addition to adapting to the demands of moving from in-person to virtual yoga lessons, Shri Yoga has also had to adapt to the changes as a result of the closing of public schools in Rhode Island, because one of the central programs of the nonprofit is creating nutritious snacks known as ShriBark, distributed to public schools across the state.

Further complicating the picture is the fact that Bologna has had to enter a 14-day quarantine, having been exposed to someone who tested positive for the COVID-19.

A time to talk

Bologna graciously agreed to do a phone interview with ConvergenceRI last week, having had to cancel an earlier scheduled walking tour of the new building, detailing the plans taking shape for the new home of Shri Yoga, located near the border of Central Falls and Pawtucket.

“With plans to redevelop this historic property,” the Shri Yoga website says, “we are determined to create a new home for our wellness work, social enterprise business, event space, and affordable and market-rate lofts, creating a diverse and inclusive [living]-work community, dedicated to light and prosperity, the definition of ‘Shri.’”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Alison Bologna, capturing the positive, future-looking vision of how a nonprofit urban outreach yoga studio is determined to create a new kind of engaged community in Pawtucket and Central Falls.

ConvergenceRI: How has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way your yoga classes are conducted?
We had to move from in-person classes to live, online classes. The best example would be our yoga for educators, because we recognized that teachers are still working from home, and that is challenging.

So, we have four live classes a week, where educators sign up and we send them an email before each live class and they log into a Zoom meeting, and our Shri Yoga teachers run it.

The classes are free for the teachers, as our nonprofit [arm] pays our Shri Yoga teachers for running the classes. It’s a nice way to keep our teachers busy and paid, while offering a free service as well.

We are doing the live classes with educators. We are also doing the live, online classes with some group homes for adaptive yoga, and we did the North Providence Senior Center today.

We’re also offering live online classes next week at Slater Hospital, and we’ve been teaching virtually at Bradley Pediatric Hospital, too.

ConvergenceRI: What has been the response? How do you have to change your routine when you a doing a virtual live class?
We have to be a little more specific. A lot of our curriculum is outreach yoga based on community building, which includes partner poses, and problem solving with yoga blocks and straps.

All of that had to be adapted, because we can’t be touching one another, and you physically can’t, when you are in a virtual space.

ConvergenceRI: What have you learned from the process of going virtual?
It is not the same, for sure. But it’s really important to keep showing up, not just for the students we are serving, but also for the staff and for our teachers.

Because I think at a time when everybody feels physically isolated, staying able to see one another and hear one another, let alone move with one another, has made a big difference.

I practiced with one of the yoga for educators classes this week. And, just seeing people who I haven’t seen in weeks, to say hello, made a big difference.

And, we are doing it a little bit differently from some of the other studios.

We are not taping or recording and then just posting. We decided to go live [with the classes], so that people are actually participating at the same time together.

We felt that was pretty important, versus people just popping in and watching a recorded class. Connecting with one another live really makes a huge difference to the way we work.

ConvergenceRI: The last time I checked, the major insurance companies still do not reimburse for yoga. Is that still true?
Yes. That’s why we started our nonprofit. Whatever we raise through grant writing, and fundraising, that’s what we use to pay our yoga teachers.

So, if we offer free classes, [our yoga instructors] still get paid for their teacher time through our nonprofit.

We’ve never gone the insurance [reimbursement] route because we fund so many the classes ourselves. With social service agencies or senior centers, if they have funding, they contribute to our studio.

ConvergenceRI: You have this new building, and by some miracle, it survived the massive fire in Pawtucket.
Yes, it almost burned down. We survived the fire.

ConvergenceRI: Has that delayed your plans at all?
Good question. We closed on the building on Jan. 30, 2020. Our architectural plans are 100 percent complete.

We were actually working on our architectural plans during purchase and sales [negotiations].

The drawings are complete. And, during this time, we’ve also been fine-tuning the plans. We have a grant for the abatement part of the program.

The first thing we have to do before going out to bid [for construction] is to environmentally clean out the inside of the building, which isn’t too bad – lead paint and asbestos is the majority of it.

We got an EPA grant to do that. So, for the last couple of weeks, we have just been fine-tuning the plan. We haven’t lost any time, because it is a lot of paper work.

We should go out for bid for that [to do the abatement work] within the week. We hope to get the abatement moving [shortly], so that we might still be on track for June for the construction to begin.

A lot of the folks we are going out to bid with, we had them come and tour the building, so they are pretty aware of what the project scope is.

ConvergenceRI: How much of the work that you are doing with Shri Yoga is integrated with future plans for redevelopment of Pawtucket and Central Falls?
The building is in Pawtucket, a block from Central Falls. We’re going to continue to keep funding free classes for Pawtucket and Central Falls residents, in addition to all of our outreach.

The first floor in the new building, about 3,500 square feet, is dedicated to all current and future programming for the community.

We will have two studio spaces, so we can be running two classes at one time. We hope to double our community programs.

There are three commercial spaces on the first floor. We are planning to do a Grab and Go Shri Café, which will be owned and operated by the ARC of Blackstone Valley. They have been long-time partners of ours. The café will also serve as a job training site for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

For some of the folks who already come to our adaptive yoga classes, this will be an expanded life skills training for them.

Upstairs there will be eight apartments; three of those will be affordable housing units, 37 percent of the apartments. The goal is to see if we can give preference not only to low- or moderate-income folks for affordable housing, but also folks with intellectual disabilities, through a partnership with another agency.

We are in talks with an agency called L.I.F.E., Inc. which [has been working with Rhode Island’s disabled for 30 years]. They have been a long-time partner with Shri Yoga as well; they come to adaptive yoga classes on Tuesdays. ARC has adaptive yoga with us on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so these are long-term partners.

We want to create living and working arrangements, in addition to our wellness programming; that is the plan for the building.

ConvergencRI: When we talked for the last story on Shri Yoga, the Neighborhood Health Station in Central Falls was still under construction and had not officially opened. Has there been any conversation with Blackstone Valley Community Health Care about potential collaborations moving forward?
We haven’t heard from them. We’re happy to provide servicing for them, if they want it. Some folks may be coming to us under the [availability] to Pawtucket and Central Falls residents.

When folks come on Thursday night or Saturday morning to Shri, [the classes are] free to any Pawtucket or Central Falls residents, so we may be seeing them through that.

One of the benefits of the new Pine Street location is that we have parking for 40 cars, four of which are handicapped spots, so what we are hoping we can do is, we’ve seen a real demand, and it is challenging, for after school programs.

Because we are right on the Central Falls city line, we’re hoping to bring kids from Central Falls after school to Pine Street for after-school programming, versus us going into the schools.

We noticed that by getting the kids into an environment like ours, they respond. We’re hoping to do more [programming] integrated with the six schools in Central Falls, because literally, they can bring a bus, which they can’t do now, drive over the line, park and come right into the studio.

And afternoons are really great, because we don’t run drop-in classes during those times. Our expanded space means more opportunities to work with the kids in a more controlled setting. We do what we can with the after-school programs in the schools, but they are really short-staffed.

ConvergenceRI: In my previous story, Shri Yoga was working with pregnant women in a residential treatment program. [See link to ConvergenceRi story, “A safe place where you will always belong.”] Is that program still continuing?
Yes, the program with the Eastman House is still running on Fridays and we ahe secured a grant to keep it going.

ConvergenceRI: Given that your professional life includes both Shri Yoga and TV news, I was wondering if you had considered offering a yoga class for stressed out journalists?
[Laughing] Probably not a bad idea. If we do it, I’m not teaching it.

We have classes on Sundays specifically for staff of our partner agencies – nurses, social workers, Bradley Hospital, Slater Hospital, social services, so they can come for free on Sunday, because we recognize the people running all these programs are under a lot of stress.

Yes, not a bad idea for journalists.

ConvergenceRI: How has your staff responded to the plans for new space?
We had a private “tour and toast” with friends and families on Sunday, Feb. 23, with all the teachers and some community members. Our teachers had been hearing about this for a year, and they wanted to go in and see the progress.

It’s exciting to see how a yoga organization that also does other wellness programming can morph into a provider for affordable housing market-rate housing.

It’s work that we’ve always wanted to do. And now that we have the space, we will be able to do it. I’m really excited about the café and the partnership with ARC.

ConvergenceRI: What are the next steps?
We have one more piece of funding that needs to come into place, which is from CommerceRI.

They were supposed to vote on it last week. It’s the one funding piece we are waiting on before construction can begin.

We are hoping to do the groundbreaking at the end of May or in early June. If it gets moved to July, it gets moved to July, we’ll figure it out.

ConvergenceRI: What haven’t I talked about, should I have talked about, that you’d like to talk about?
We’ve started we do teacher trainings once a year. We do it in the fall; it’s an 80-hour training.

We started training adaptive students to become certified Shri Yoga teachers, we have trained three so far, one of them is already up and running with adaptive classes.

He’s gone from being a student in my adaptive classes to now a paid Shri Yoga teacher on Wednesdays, and he runs the class for his peers, at ARC of Blackstone Valley and six adults from the Groden Center.

He is now serving as a mentor to two other adaptive students [who are becoming Shri Yoga teachers]. They completed my fall training and they are doing their observation hours now.

I’m really excited about this, because it takes the whole model to another level, when you start training outreach students to become teachers. It is empowering.

Because I want to be able to hand over the reins.

ConvergenceRI: Are you planning your retirement?
God, no. I will always be running this thing. But it’s exciting to see other teachers get the opportunity.

There are 43 of us now, 43 Shri Yoga teachers spread out across the state.

ConvergenceRI: Do you find there is competition from other yoga studios?
We’re an outreach yoga organization, we are not a commercial yoga studio. If you look at our schedule, it’s yoga in recovery, yoga for the military, adaptive yoga. We’re doing a completely different service model than most studios.

ConvergenceRI: How is the work with Shri Bark progressing?
Right now, our home deliveries are doing really well in this climate. We have partnered with two platforms; one is Farm Fresh RI, through Market Mobile, and that [distributes] our products retail, to go into stores.

And we also do home deliveries, working with a local organization, What’s Good, that literally brings the farmers market to your doorstep. We do that on a one-by-one basis with different households. This morning, we had five cases going out.

We are also growing with the schools. We are averaging about 50,000 units a month with Providence Public Schools. We are also looking to expand more in retail. In the last six months, our products have gotten picked up [for distribution] at Dave’s Market.

During all of this with what’s happening with COVID-19, we are learning to do more virtually, adapting again. My situation now is that I’m quarantined. Even though I can’t physically do the driving anymore, I am still managing it from the back end. Our bakery has basically cut me out of being the driver on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

ConvergenceRI: Moving to a virtual platform for yoga classes and for distribution of Shri Bark, how has it changed your understanding of the business?
You have to be more flexible. You really have to be comfortable and organized at the back end so that you can streamline everything. I have learned how to become more efficient in the last two weeks, for sure.


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