By Ciara Long, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Once a week, seventy residents of Complexo da Maré favela community gather to practice yoga under the guidance of Ana Olivia Cardoso. A social worker and researcher, Cardoso has spent the last four years living, working and volunteering in Rio and wanted to help residents find tranquility and fitness in the underserved community.
After qualifying as a professional yoga teacher, she set up the class with the help of local NGO Redes da Maré, who provide the space for the practice. It was instantly popular, with almost all of its initial 65 spaces full.
Cardoso thought it was particularly important to bring both the physical and mental benefits of yoga to those who may not be able to afford the price of classes elsewhere in the city, and teaches on a voluntary basis. Yoga mats, belts, blocks, books and other materials were also donated by individuals.
“I started practicing soon after I arrived in Rio, and it was so good for me that I wanted to pass that on to others,” she told Veja. “With yoga, we learn to take care of body and mind. They live a very stressful routine, and I want to help them have a little peace in the midst of chaos, to breathe and stay calm on a daily basis.”
Costs are not the only barriers that Cardoso and her students face to their practice. Confusion between yoga practice and religion has led some students to drop out after their churches voiced disapproval.
A far more prohibitive factor than religious confusion continues to be the frequent shootouts between Police Pacifying Units (UPPs) and drug traffickers in Complexo da Maré. Gunfire often render residents trapped in their homes and continue for hours.
Yet according to Cardoso, the practice of yoga can help residents find tranquillity despite their environment. “Maré has a violent atmosphere, a history of human rights violations,” she said to O Globo. “Yoga helps people live better in the universe into which they are inserted.”
The popularity of Cardoso’s class has, so far, seen the initiative overcome any impediments. Even a lack of funding hasn’t stopped Cardoso or her students, who recently organized and funded a weekend meditation retreat in the Região Serrana, a few hours away from Rio by selling therapeutic pillows.