In a bright, rooftop studio overlooking Salzburg, a small group of people kneel on the floor and raise their arms above their heads, stretching and swaying with slow, concise movements.
Among them is Luise Slamanig, who is formerly homeless and sells the Austrian street paper Apropos in Salzburg. While yoga hasn’t always formed a part of Luise’s daily routine, she feels at peace as she stretches out on her yoga mat.
Here the vendor is surrounded by familiar faces. Some of her regular customers – a former politician, an architect, an artist and a university professor – attend the class, as do her fellow vendors Elena and Hanna, and the street paper’s editor Katrin Schmoll.
As one, they move into child pose, breathing deeply. Leading the group of 10 through the various Kundalini yoga poses and mantras is Apropos editor-in-chief Michaela Gründler, who is also a trained yoga instructor.
“Normally only people who have money can afford to attend yoga classes. Our aim is that this approach to mind, body and soul is available to everyone, not just people who can afford it,” said Michaela.
Apropos has run the popular yoga class for its vendors and readers since October 2014. It was named a finalist in the Best Non-Street Paper Project category of the INSP Awards 2015, held at the INSP Summit in Seattle earlier this year.
The group meets several times a month in a room rented from Akzente, a nearby youth organisation, in return for free advertising space in the street paper.
Michaela said the programme has helped to improve her vendors’ physical and mental well-being.
“They have learned how to relax, get rid of stress and improve their energy levels by mobilising their spine and developing a relationship between their breathing and their body,” she said.
“Our vendors have a lot of hidden potential. I would like to help them to develop and use this to improve their health and self-esteem.”
Kundalini Yoga incorporates movement, dynamic breathing techniques, meditation and the chanting of mantras, such as “Sat nam” (meaning “I am truth”), to reduce stress, strengthen back muscles and improve spinal alignment.
Luise, 58, has been a regular Apropos yogi since the classes were introduced. She said the classes help her walk taller, in more ways than one.
“I enjoy yoga very much. It makes me feel good,” she said after a session.
“During the lessons I feel that I am in contact with my breathing and my body. I also appreciate the chanting of mantras and to feel how my voice vibrates my body and my mind. After yoga I am very relaxed.”
Reducing anxiety and stress is a key benefit to vendors, but being homeless can also cause physical stress and fatigue. This is a particular concern for Roma vendor Elena, who is currently homeless and sleeps in her car. She said that practising yoga does wonders for her back pain and posture.
Apropos has also opened the classes to other socially excluded people who are helped by Soziale Arbeit, the umbrella charity that also runs Apropos. Bettina Ebster, 38, who has experienced long-term unemployment, is one of two service users who regularly attend the class.
She said: “I am always so agitated. At Michaela’s yoga I can switch off immediately as soon as I enter the room. It helps me to relax and brings me peace and serenity. My soul feels liberated. I can forget everything that concerns me.”
Another unique strength of the yoga classes is that it allows Apropos vendors to socialise with the street paper’s staff and their customers in a more relaxed and informal setting.
After posting about her first class on Facebook, Michaela found that she was contacted by readers who were keen to join in. She agreed and now they pay €5 per class. The money goes towards helping vendors fund their medical bills.
Artist and Apropos reader Norbert Kopf, 54, said the classes offer him a bit of freedom and “stretches my body and my spirit”. He has also been inspired by Luise and Bettina’s enthusiasm.
“What I find so touching in this group is the dedication Bettina and Luise show to try to keep the pace,” said Norbert. “I see that they sometimes have difficulties in holding the postures, but they keep up, they do not give up. With such enthusiasm… they really open my heart.”
Luise, who lives in a small flat in Salzburg, has been selling Apropos since 1997 and is one of 80 vendors supported by the street paper. They buy the magazine for €1.25 and sell it on for the €2.50 cover price, keeping the profits from their sales.
She said getting the chance to speak with Apropos staff and customers in a different setting is another reason why she enjoys the classes.
“I also appreciate that my boss, Michaela, is my yoga teacher – this is another way for us to interact. I see her in a new role which fits her well,” added Luise.
“It is also very good that customers take part in the Apropos yoga lessons because I come closer in contact with them and another kind of conversation is possible which is deeper than on the street.”