Through yoga, a community heals

Roots Philly Yoga Project reaches out to individuals struggling with homelessness and those in recovery.

2007 alumnus Erik Burling, co-owner and teacher at Roots Philly Yoga Project, leads a class at his studio in Spring Garden. Before opening the studio, Burling was a news anchor in New York City. Today, Burling offers free yoga classes every month to those in recovery from addiction or homelessness. | Margo Reed TTN

Erik Burling used yoga to escape from his busy career as a news anchor in New York City.

“It’s helped me transition in form, from jobs, from cities and to figure out what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to help,” Burling said. “As a yoga teacher, I wanted to share that with other people.”

The 2007 alumnus opened Roots Yoga with his wife Lauren in July after leaving his job in New York City. Though he never saw himself becoming a yoga instructor, during his career shift Burling found increased flexibility in his schedule that allowed him to start practicing yoga.

Alongside daily classes for members and walk-ins, Roots Yoga sets aside at least two days a month to host free classes for community members who are currently homeless or have experienced homelessness, employees who support the homeless, like case managers and social workers, and those active in addiction recovery programs.

He turned to yoga during his time in broadcast as a way to heal his body from the mental and physical stress induced by his career.

“When I was working in news, my roommate at the time said ‘Hey Erik maybe you’ll open a yoga studio one day,’ and I thought, ‘No way that’s going to happen,’” he added.

When he worked as a manager of men’s homeless shelter, Burling built a makeshift yoga studio in the basement to make the practice accessible. For Burling, the Philly Yoga Project is a culmination of his two passions—social work and yoga.

Burling and Erin Nowak, a volunteer teacher at Roots, also drew inspiration from the Bethesda Project, which they worked on together. The Bethesda Project is a Philadelphia based initiative that provides shelter, housing and programs for homeless men and women.

Nowak and Burling stress how yoga is a practice focused on progression in skill and the transition from the physical to the spiritual. These themes are also central to recovery program agendas and applicable to those transitioning out of homelessness.

“I love the idea of changing something from the inside out, and for me, yoga is the methodology for trying to achieve that,” Nowak said.

The last free outreach class was held Nov. 9 and the next is Nov. 23, followed by three consecutive Monday classes in December.

“I’d be interested in taking another one of these classes. I’ve done yoga in the past and it works well for me,” said Jessica, a first time attendee. She heard about the class from a member in a recovery program and wishes to remain anonymous.

“Without a doubt we’re going to keep offering our space,” Burling said. “We’re also thinking of going out to different locations to teach and make the classes more accessible. After that, they may take the initiative to come into the studio and experience the studio environment and vibes. We want to plant the seed of yoga into their lives, but not force it on them.”

“We’re not a part of their recovery. We’re a little bit of a break from their recovery, so they can come here and breathe, get a little bit of physical exercise in,” Nowak said. “What’s most important is getting people to sit and close their eyes—they don’t even realize that.”

Casey Mitchell can be reached at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.