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Soulside Healing Arts teaches tools to break cycles of violence in Peoria

Class being held at Soulside Healing Arts in downtown Peoria
A class being held at Soulside Healing Arts in downtown Peoria.

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are designed to be tools that anyone — regardless of flexibility, body type, or even financial status — can take part in. However, there are several barriers that sometimes prohibit people from reaping the benefits that these practices have to offer.

Soulside Healing Arts, located on Southwest Adams Street in Peoria, tries to break down these barriers, one breath at a time. Founder and executive director Hannah Ramlo said it’s not surprising that people may feel a bit hesitant to give yoga a try.

“There’s definitely a cultural preconception that yoga is only for specific types of people who are already flexible or mobile. It’s part of our mission really as an organization to break down that barrier and help people understand that the foundation of our yoga is our breath. Everybody breathes, so everybody can do yoga. We start there, we have beginner's classes … we try to make it accessible for everybody physically as well as financially,” Ramlo said.

Hannah Ramlo, founder and executive director of Soulside Healing Arts
Jody Holtz
Hannah Ramlo, founder and executive director of Soulside Healing Arts

Ramlo, a Tremont native, began practicing yoga when she was in college. It became a foundational aspect of her life that kept her stress levels at bay, which is one reason why she became a yoga teacher.

However, yoga wasn’t as easy to access as she wanted. As a college student and employee in nonprofits, she didn’t have a lot of extra money, and she noticed that many yoga studios were out of her price range, which limited her practice. After coming across one studio in Cincinnati that operated on a pay-as-you-can basis, she decided to bring this model to Peoria.

“We try to draw people in, let them know they can practice with us no matter what they can pay. Whether you can pay a dollar or $25 … we don’t ask any questions. There’s no judgment. We ask you to be honest with what you can pay. If you can come to a yoga class and pay market rate, which is about $15 a class or more, you are subsidizing the tools for someone else in our community who can’t afford them,” said Ramlo.

Soulside doesn’t just limit its outreach to the people impacted inside the studio. The outreach stretches to almost every part of Peoria through its community yoga corps program — from workshops at Forest Park Nature Center, free classes at Carver Center, Sterling Towers, Whittier Primary School, St. Paul's Episcopal church, and working with the counseling staff at the Center for Youth and Family Solutions.

With such a large audience and group of partners, the organization encounters people from all walks of life. This is one of the reasons why every class and outreach program offered by Soulside is taught under atrauma-informed lens.

“Trauma-informed yoga looks at each student as the expert of their own body, and it takes away the power dynamic of teacher student … everything we offer in a class is merely a suggestion, and students can make decisions and have agency over their body to move in a way that feels good for them,” Ramlo said.

The goal at Soulside is that all of the yoga instructors have advanced training in trauma informed yoga, since the nonprofit values the use of yoga as a healing tool for individuals who have or are experiencing some form of trauma. Ramlo emphasizes that this approach is not about treating people as fragile.

“It’s about creating this safer space, because yoga can be such a vulnerable practice,” explains Ramlo.

Community members in class at Soulside Healing Arts
Community members in class at Soulside Healing Arts

This safe space that allows people to be vulnerable and confront hard issues is one way that Soulside hopes to be a part of the larger conversation of the violence problem in Peoria. While yoga has many benefits that typically come to mind — like a regulated nervous system, lower stress, anxiety, and depression, and increased mobility — it is often underestimated as a violence prevention tool.

However, while healing arts can be helpful in combating cycles of violence, Ramlo makes an important distinction.

“Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are not going to be systemic solutions to the underlying issues that violence arises out of, like poverty, or joblessness, or disinvestment in neighborhoods.”

While the issue of violence is multifaceted, yoga shouldn’t be overlooked as a practice that offers some serious tools that allow people to become more introspective and reflective of themselves. Ramlo says some of this work begins with even the youngest of children, such as the kindergarteners and first-graders at Whittier Primary, whom Soulside has been working with for the past 3 years.

“We’re teaching and we’re talking about emotions, and how it feels when you get really angry, how it feels when you get frustrated … and then we talk about how to calm the body from that, so we breathe, and we do yoga practices to calm the body and talking about giving that space before we take an action we might regret. That’s not just for kids. We all need that work,” Ramlo said.

Another tool that the practice offers to combat violence is teaching people how to sit in silence with themselves. This allows them the opportunity to come towards some sort of self-awareness and self-love, as opposed to always seeking validation from external sources.

“A lot of violence comes from the need to be part of a group, to be validated by others, so that’s another way we can teach both adults and children through yoga practices a little more self-love,” said Ramlo.

Finally, Ramlo says yoga can teach adults the tools they need to be role models for children, specifically in relation to how to keep calm in a stressful situation.

“We’ve heard that hurt people hurt people. It’s also true that healed people heal people. So, if we can heal and help heal parents and have them act as that calm anchor in their families and then in their neighborhoods, we start with adults but then we access this practice starting from birth with babies and young childhood,” Ramlo said.

Yoga has the power to heal communities, and the programs and safe space provided by Soulside are a constant reminder that other people in the community have your back and are supportive of your wellbeing. While it isn’t an end all be all solution to an issue that has been plaguing the community for years, it certainly can be a step, or breathe, in the right direction.

Soulside’s calendar of classes can be found online. Well Fest, an annual event put on by the nonprofit featuring holistic wellness education and practices, takes place on May 21. Everyone is welcome to attend the event, as well as any classes offered in the studio.

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Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.